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Celgene CEO and President Mark Alles speaking at the 2018 Washington State Life Science Summit. (GeekWire Photo / Clare McGrane)

BELLEVUE, Wash. — Cancer treatments have improved astronomically in the past few decades. But as more patients overcome the disease, a different monster is rearing its head: financial toxicity.

“Most people today think about quality of life around cancer and wonder: ‘How do I afford the medicines that will keep me alive?'” said Mark Alles, the CEO and president of biotech company Celgene, which became the parent company of Seattle-based biotech company Juno Therapeutics earlier this year.

Speaking at the Life Science Washington Summit in Bellevue on Friday, Alles said the financial burden of treatment is eclipsing the biological challenges of treating cancer for many patients.

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Actually treating the disease “is becoming, ironically, easy,” he said. But that won’t be enough to treat the full range of challenges cancer patients face.

“We can’t just solve for the biologic issue. We have to be solving holistically for what we are, in fact, achieving,” in other words, treating the whole patient, including their financial well being. “We’re not doing that well enough,” he said.

As healthcare costs in the U.S. have grown to the largest in the world, the financial burden of cancer treatment has also increased. Immunotherapies, a new branch of treatments that leverage the immune system to attack cancer, have been particularly effective in treating cancers that are difficult or impossible to survive, but they’ve also faced particular criticism for high prices.

One kind of immunotherapy, called CAR T therapy, comes with a jaw-dropping price tag: The two treatments on the market cost $475,000 and $373,000 respectively. They’ve also wiped out cancer in a significant number of patients who have no other option, up to 90 percent of patients in some trials.

Celgene made a strong move into this area with its $9 billion acquisition of Juno, a Seattle-based CAR T developer, in January. The Seattle region is now the center of the company’s immuno-oncology work.

Drug prices are a common talking point for the Trump Administration, which announced this week that it will seek to make drug companies charge the same cost for products in the U.S. as they do in other countries, where drug prices tend to be lower.

In a statement shared with GeekWire, Celgene said it is taking an active role in addressing the problem of drug pricing.

“Celgene is committed to being part of the solution regarding the pricing of innovative medicines. This process is complex but ultimately must both ensure access for patients and preserve incentives for medical innovation and investment in research and development,” the company said.

Last year, it also committed to only raising prices for its products once per year and limiting increases to the rate of medical inflation.

Alles said the problem of high cancer treatment costs could be tackled by targeting or tailoring therapies to specific populations.

“You want to know why cancer treatment costs so much? It’s not because of the unit cost of the medicine, it’s because we still treat empirically across huge heterogeneous groups of patients, and then we hope we find 30 percent or 40 percent who benefit,” he said.

“But the 60 percent who didn’t benefit, what happens to them? The system is paying for all that but getting no real benefit,” he said. “I don’t even have to tell you about the toll on families.”

He added that CAR T therapies and other targeted immunotherapies may be able to address this problem by matching up patients with therapies based on biological markers.

But at the end of the day, Alles said, financial toxicity is a sign that we are actually winning the fight against cancer.

“What a great problem to have,” he said. “You don’t worry about financial toxicity if you’re not dealing with saving somebody’s life.”

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