Should a life-saving drug that can be profitably sold for far less cost more than $100,000 per year?

A group of more than 120 cancer researchers and physicians took the unusual step this week of publishing a research paper taking aim at pharmaceutical prices they see as exorbitant and unjustifiable.

Drug companies are profiteering, the doctors say, by charging whatever the market will bear for medications that patients literally can’t live without.

The paper, published online in the American Society of Hematology’s medical journal Blood, analyzes and criticizes the cost of drugs used to treat chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), a rare type of cancer that responds very well to drug therapy. The 10-year survival rate for CML patients now tops 80% for those who receive targeted drugs — but the annual price tag for the treatment is usually in the six-figure range.

Those prices bear little relation to what the drugs actually cost to develop and produce, the doctors say. As an example, they zero in on the case of imatinib, a drug sold by Novartis(NVS) as Gleevec (in the U.S.) or Glivec (in most international markets).

Gleevec is the kind of miracle pill cancer researchers dream about. Introduced in 2001, the drug and others in its class dramatically increased the survival rate for CML and transformed it from a lethal disease to one that is usually chronic but manageable. It’s like having hypertension or diabetes, doctors say — so long as you take your daily drugs.

Novartis first sold Gleevec in 2001 for an annual cost of $30,000, a price the company acknowledged was steep.

“We agree with those who say the price we have set for Gleevec is high. But given all the factors, we believe it is a fair price,” Daniel Vasella, Novartis’ CEO at the time, wrote inMagic Cancer Bullet, a 2003 book he penned about his company’s wonder drug.

That “fair price” nearly tripled over the past decade. An annual course of Gleevec now wholesales for more than $76,000 in the U.S., according to Novartis. The retail price that patients or their insurers pay is typically much higher.

The Blood authors say lowering those prices will help save the lives of patients who cannot afford to pay. “We believe the unsustainable drug prices in CML and cancer may be causing harm to patients,” they wrote.

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