Price pioneer in cancer slash

New Delhi, Nov. 8: An Indian pharma company that "changed the rules of the game" in HIV treatment a decade ago has announced sharp cuts in prices of three more cancer drugs.

Cipla has slashed up to 63 per cent the prices of the three drugs used to treat cancers of the breast, colon, lungs and other organs.

The cuts further expand Cipla's striking price-reduction strategy, initiated about a decade ago with drug cocktails to treat the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and extended earlier this year to cancer drugs.

Cipla's version of erlotinib, used in the treatment of lung cancer and earlier available at Rs 27,000 for 30 tablets, will now sell at Rs 9,900, the company said in a statement today.

Docetaxel, used in breast, colon, lung, gastric, bladder, and head and neck cancers and sold at Rs 14,000, will now cost Rs 7,000. The price of capecitabine, used in breast cancer, too, has been halved to Rs 600 for 10 tablets.

"This is part of our effort to provide cancer drugs at humanitarian prices," Yusuf Khwaja Hamied, chairman and managing director of Cipla, told The Telegraph over the phone. "The prices of some cancer drugs sold (by foreign companies) on monopoly have been very high."

In May this year, Cipla had announced similar dramatic price reductions on three other cancer drugs: sorafenib, used in treating kidney tumours; gefitinib, used in certain types of breast cancers; and temozolomide, used in treating aggressive brain tumours.

Hamied said the sales of these drugs had gone up since the May price cuts.

"I think this is a fantastic step," said Dhananjay Saranath, a molecular oncologist with the Cancer Patients Aid Association, a non-government agency in Mumbai.

"There are so many families in India that can't afford the high cost of treatment. Lower prices could help some of these families," Saranath said. "The new move could also help us support more patients."

Public health activists campaigning for patients' right to access inexpensive generic versions of medicines say Cipla's move is likely to mount pressure on other manufacturers to slash their own prices for these drugs.

Cipla had made available a three-drug cocktail of medicines to treat the HIV-positive at a price of less than a dollar a day, a tiny fraction of the prices of international anti-HIV medications then.

"Cipla changed the rules of the game in HIV treatment 10 years ago; now it seems intent on doing the same thing for cancer treatment," said a senior official with an international humanitarian agency.

A cancer specialist said the price reduction was a "very positive step" that could improve patients' access to appropriate treatment.

"It's devastating to see patients turn away from treatment just because they can't afford it," said Vishal Rao, a cancer surgeon in Bangalore.

Rao recalled the case of a patient from earlier this week who was diagnosed with throat cancer. Informed that the cost of chemotherapy and radiotherapy would work out to about Rs 1 lakh, the patient requested a less expensive but non-ideal option ' surgery to remove his voice box ' only because it would cost less.