A new drug — that costs ¥33.49 million for a single dose — to treat leukemia and a certain type of lymphoma is now covered by the public health insurance system. While the drug, named Kymriah, carries the highest price tag of any single medication in Japan, most of its cost will be shouldered by the insurance program under a system that caps a patient's burden in receiving expensive medical treatment. Innovative therapies thanks to progress in medical technology will give hope to patients who can't be cured through existing anti-cancer agents. But the introduction of such expensive drugs gives rise to the dilemma that advances in medical treatment are putting further strain on the public health insurance system. Steps should be explored to curb the cost of these super-expensive therapies.
Kymriah was developed by Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis and approved for use in Japan earlier this year. In the therapy, chimeric antigen receptor T (CAR-T) cells, a type of immune system cell, are removed from a cancer patient, shipped to a Novartis lab in the United States to be genetically modified to attack cancer cells, and then put back in the patient through intravenous drip. Since the modified CAR-T cells multiply within the patient's body, each dose is reportedly effective for an extended period.
The problem is its cost. In addition to the investments made in developing the therapy, the drug is effectively tailor-made for each patient in a complicated process that takes about two months. When it was first introduced in the United States in 2017, the price tag reportedly topped ¥50 million.