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Doctors blast cost of cancer treatment

With the cost of some lifesaving cancer drugs exceeding $100,000 a year, more than 100 influential cancer specialists from around the world have taken the unusual step of banding together in hopes of persuading some leading pharmaceutical companies to bring prices down.

Prices for cancer drugs have been part of the debate over health care costs for several years and recently led to a public protest by doctors at a major cancer center in New York.

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But the decision by so many specialists, from more than 15 countries on five continents, to join the effort is a sign that doctors, who are on the front lines of caring for patients, are taking a more active role in resisting high prices. In this case, some of the specialists include researchers with close ties to the pharmaceutical industry.

The doctors and researchers, who specialize in the potentially deadly blood cancer chronic myeloid leukemia, contend in a commentary published online by a medical journal Thursday that the prices of drugs used to treat that disease are astronomical, unsustainable, and perhaps even immoral.

They suggested that charging a high price for a medicine needed to keep someone alive is profiteering, akin to jacking up the prices of essential goods after a natural disaster.

“Advocating for lower drug prices is a necessity to save the lives of patients’’ who cannot afford the medicines, they wrote in Blood, the journal of the American Society of Hematology.

While noting that the drugs used to treat many other cancers are just as costly, the doctors focused on what they know best — the medicines for chronic myeloid leukemia, like Gleevec, which is enormously profitable for Novartis. Among the critics is Dr. Brian Druker, who was the main academic developer of Gleevec.

Novartis argues that few patients pay the full cost of the drug and that prices reflect the high cost of research and the value of a drug to patients.

Gleevec entered the market in 2001 at a price of about $30,000 a year in the United States, the doctors wrote. Since then, the price has tripled, they said, even as Gleevec has faced competition from five newer, more expensive drugs.

The prices have been the subject of intense debate elsewhere as well. India’s Supreme Court ruled recently that the drug could not be patented, clearing the way for the use of generic alternatives.

‘‘It is a little surprising that their focus is in a cancer where the small-molecule medicines have had the greatest impact on long-term benefit,’’ said Dr. Harvey J. Berger, chief executive of Ariad Pharmaceuticals, which sells the newest and most expensive of the leukemia drugs, Iclusig.

What impact the new commentary will have remains to be seen. The authors, however, call merely for a dialogue on pricing to begin.

The protest’s leader is Dr. Hagop M. Kantarjian, chairman of the leukemia department at the prestigious MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

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