Goldman Sachs Says Curing Diseases May Not Be Economically Viable

By changing a single segment of DNA, gene therapy may soon cure many awful genetic diseases, but not if economic forces prevent it. Natali_Mis/Shutterstock

A leaked report has stated what many in the health industry have whispered privately; there is a lot less money in curing people than in long-term management of disease. The issue is brought into focus by the possibility of a gene therapy that could soon cure a large variety of genetic conditions by changing individual units of DNA. However, the huge potential boon for society could be blocked without changes to the way health is funded. Countries with public health systems may be able to reap the benefits of the new technologies, leaving the US trailing in their wake.

Goldman Sachs analyst Salveen Richter reportedly set out the issue in a note to clients; "The potential to deliver 'one-shot cures' is one of the most attractive aspects of gene therapy, genetically-engineered cell therapy, and gene editing. However, such treatments offer a very different outlook with regard to recurring revenue versus chronic therapies."

Someone who is rich enough may be willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to be cured of a debilitating disease. Most people, however, coudn't afford this, especially if their condition affected their earning capacity. Meanwhile, the same person might be able to scrape together tens of thousands of dollars a year to keep the worst aspects of the disease at bay, in the long run paying far more than they would have for a cure. It's a medical equivalent of Terry Pratchett's "boots theory".

Richter points to the sofosbuvir treatment of hepatitis C marketed by Gilead Sciences. In 2015 this brought the company $12.5 billion, mostly in the United States, as people suffering liver damage from the virus rushed to take up the new drug. However, the therapy cures most patients so thoroughly they're finished treatment within 12 weeks. Better still from a social perspective, but worse for profits, once treated people no longer transmit the virus, preventing new infections. This year Richter expects American sales to fall to less than $4 billion.

“While this proposition carries tremendous value for patients and society, it could represent a challenge for genome medicine developers looking for sustained cash flow,” Richter's note, which is not online, reportedly concludes.

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