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Group hits Tufts center’s drug development figure

Critics of fast-rising drug prices want Tufts University to provide more details about the methods and funding behind a new estimate by its Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development that pegged the cost of bringing a medicine to market at more than $2.5 billion.

In a letter to Tufts president Anthony P. Monaco last week, a new group, the Union for Affordable Cancer Treatment, warned that the center’s dollar figure — the latest in a series of ever-higher drug development cost estimates it has made over two decades — will be used by drug companies to support increases in the prices of cancer treatments.

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The nonprofit Tufts research center, based in Boston, discloses on its website that grants from drug makers and related consulting firms and contract research organizations account for about 40 percent of its operating expenses. But center officials say the grants are unrestricted, meaning that sponsors don’t oversee research or influence findings.

But the letter to Monaco, signed by 15 doctors, medical professionals, health care activists, and cancer patients from nine countries, said “we have ample reason to be skeptical of the balance and objectivity, and also of the manner in which the study will be used by the pharmaceutical industry, including to justify high prices for cancer drugs.”

Tufts University spokeswoman Kim Thurler said the drug development study center provides a clear financial disclosure statement. She referred questions about research methods or data to the researchers themselves. “Tufts University supports subjecting academic research to careful scrutiny and robust discussion, which are hallmarks of the research enterprise,” she said.

Breast cancer patient Manon Ress, who signed the letter, is married to Jamie Love, director of the nongovernmental organization Knowledge Ecology International, a longtime critic of the Tufts center’s estimates who helped organize the letter.

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“We know it costs a lot of money to develop new drugs,” Ress said. “But we’re shocked by the lack of transparency in this estimate. We’re questioning whether this is relevant to the cancer drugs . . . Whatever price [drug makers] come up with, all my friends in the infusion centers are going to have to shut up and pay it, and hope that their insurance covers it.”

Critics from the Union for Affordable Cancer Treatment complain, among other things, that the Tufts center hosted a recent press conference to publicize the number but has not yet released a full report detailing how the $2.5 billion figure was determined.

They also want the center to disclose which companies were interviewed, which drugs were included in the study, and how many patients were enrolled in clinical studies for those drugs. They note that cancer treatment trials typically involve fewer patients than those designed for drugs that treat more common ailments.

And the majority of experimental cancer drugs benefit from federal tax credits that don’t appear to be addressed in the estimate, they say.

Kenneth I. Kaitin, director of the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development, said a full report supporting the cost estimate will be published later in a research journal. He also said Tufts will respond to the questions raised in the letter to Monaco.

But he defended the center researchers’ methods and said that while the center is funded by corporations, foundations, and nongovernmental organizations, the specific research on the cost of drug development is not financed by any outside group.

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“We don’t accept any direct sponsorship for this study,” Kaitin said. “The companies don’t oversee our research at all. We know this is a controversial study in that it has a tremendous political and industry impact. We welcome discussion on this.”


Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.