Cancer Treatments Need Policy Breakthroughs to Better Reach Patients
As COVID-19 has highlighted the power of innovation to tackle complex health issues, other top health care concerns have persisted. Across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), many countries face a common set of health and health care challenges, including a rise in non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and a need to increase public and private investment in health systems.
NCDs, such as cancer, chronic respiratory diseases, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, account for 60 percent of the disease burden and 74 percent of all deaths in the MENA region. To address this growing need, the biopharmaceutical industry is researching and developing new solutions to improve patients’ lives.
Cancer accounts for the second most-common prevalent cause of NCD deaths globally. Innovative biopharmaceutical companies have made remarkable progress in recent years. Currently, there are more than 3,000 drugs in development for cancer around the world. Of those, about 80 percent have the potential to be first-in-class treatments.
Data shows that the introduction of new cancer medicines was associated with nearly 1.3 million avoided cancer deaths in the United States between 2000 and 2016. The promise of these new treatments could also be lifesaving for many people in the MENA region who are battling cancer. Unfortunately, while regulatory environments across the region mature, some patients are still waiting for innovative treatments and cures.
Policy action can support innovation and access
Developing a new cancer medicine is a complex process that can take on average 1.5 times longer than other medicines and is often fraught with setbacks. But these so called “failures” inform new avenues of research and pave the way for future medical breakthroughs. Policymakers can support the research and development process by fostering and protecting innovation ecosystems within the region.
Governments across the MENA region are also making practical improvements to strengthen health systems and partner with the private sector to improve health and drive innovation, which is vital to improving patient outcomes. In 2019, Novartis International AG partnered with Sudair Pharmaceutical and the Saudi Arabian government to provide technological knowhow and information needed for Sudair Pharmaceuticals to open a manufacturing plant with the goal to help more Saudi cancer patients. Through this public-private partnership, the long-term localization plan included transfer of technology for lifesaving cancer drugs, co-manufacturing agreements, building capacities and strengthening clinical research programs for future innovation.
The decades-long investments by innovative companies into new technologies, research and treatments to fight cancer have made great strides, but there is more that can be done to ensure all patients have access. A 2016 study found that of the 41 selected essential cancer medicines included on the WHO model list of essential medicines, national lists in MENA countries included on average only about 30 of these essential medicines.
To ensure more patients can access lifesaving cancer treatments, policy reforms are needed to enhance market competition, accelerate the development and regulatory approval of cancer medicines and promote patient-centered, value-based care.