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Why a Charity for the Blind Opposes a Cheap Drug for Sight Loss (Hint: Big Pharma Cash Is Involved)

A new study that shows Avastin -- a cheap cancer drug -- is indeed effective at also preventing blindness, but a leading charity for the blind continues to urge the use of a different, more expensive drug for the condition. Hmm. That charity, the Royal National Institute of Blind People, also takes funding from Novartis (NVS), the company that markets the expensive drug in the U.K. Anyone see a connection?

The study, conducted by Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, suggests that Avastin, a cancer drug marketed in the U.S. by Roche's (RHHBY) Genentech unit, works to prevent age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Avastin is cheap when used against AMD: It costs as little as £350 annually. The current therapy for AMD is Lucentis, also made by Roche/Genentech (and sold by Novartis in Europe), which costs up to £10,000 a year. The difference in price is not trivial: More than 250,000 people in Britain suffer from AMD; 25,000 new cases occur every year.

Roche/Genentech has refused to study Avastin v. Lucentis for AMD, and has declined to apply to the FDA for an AMD indication for the cheaper drug. This has angered pretty much everyone outside the company, as the two drugs are similar in structure and effect, as you can see here and here and here. It seems as if Roche and Novartis have a cheap treatment for blindness on their hands but they're keeping it off the market in favor of a similar but pricey version.

Britain's NHS has tied itself in knots over the cost of the drug (every penny it spends on expensive drugs is a penny it can't spend on cheaper drugs that may help more people). And Americans are outraged because the company is increasing the cost of healthcare in the U.S.

It's therefore odd that RNIB's reaction to the new study is to defend the expensive drug:

Barbara McLaughlan, RNIB Campaigns Manager for Eye Health and Social Care said 'Until robust evidence is available on the safety and effectiveness of Avastin, patients should continue to be treated with the licensed and NICE approved drug.'
Odd, that is, until you realize that RNIB takes money from Novartis. RNIB (and Roche and Genentech and Novartis) won't be able to hide behind that "robust evidence" figleaf for much longer. A head-to-head study of the two drugs being conducted by the National Eye Institute is due to be unveiled in 2011. If, as many expect, it shows Avastin is just as good as Lucentis for AMD, then the RNIB et al. will have run out of excuses.

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Image by Flickr user ketrin1407, CC.