Friday, June 28, 2013

Cost of a Stem Cell Therapy? An Estimated $512,000

(Editor's note: Updated figures on costs can be found in this 2017 item.)

The likely costs of potential stem cell therapies and cures receive almost no attention in the media as well as publicly from scientists and the biotech firms.

Usually any public discussion is obliquely framed in the context of “reimbursement,” as if industry is owed something instead of making a business decision about what will make a profit. Euphemisms and jargon cloak unpleasant realities such as astronomical patient costs. But what reimbursement really involves are, in fact, pricing decisions and profit margins along with lobbying campaigns for inclusion of therapies in normal coverage of health insurance and Medicare

And today a singular figure – $512,000 for one stem cell treatment – appeared in the Wall Street Journal . The story by Kosaku Narioka and Phred Dvorak dealt with what would be the first-ever human study of a treatment that uses reprogrammed adult stem cells.

They reported that the study received preliminary approval on Wednesday from a key panel of the Japan Health Ministry. The treatment involves a form of age-related macular degeneration, which has also been targeted by the California stem cell agency with different approaches.

Buried deep in the Wall Street Journal article, with little other discussion, was this sentence:
“One eventual obstacle, even if tests go well, could be cost: (Masayuki) Yamato (of Tokyo Women's Medical University) says initial estimates for the treatment run around ¥50 million ($512,000) per person."
The subject of costs for potential stem cell treatments has rattled around in the background for years without much deep public discussion. One reason is that high costs of treatments are controversial and can trigger emotional debate. Another reason is that it is very early in the therapy development process and estimates are not likely to be entirely reliable.

A few years ago, however, the California stem cell agency commissioned a study involving costs of stem cell therapies. The UC Berkeley report said,
“The cost impact of the therapy is likely to be high, because of a therapy’s high cost per patient, and the potentially large number of individuals who might benefit from the therapy. This expense would put additional stress on the Medicare and Medicaid budgets, cause private insurance health premiums to increase, and create an incentive for private plans to avoid covering individuals eligible for a therapy.”
The findings did not seem to be exactly welcomed. The agency sat on the 2009 study for seven months until it was uncovered by the California Stem Cell Report in April 2010. Then the agency was careful to say that the study did not reflect the view of CIRM management or board leadership.

Their wariness of being out in front on the issue could be well-advised. The pharmaceutical industry received some unpleasant attention this spring when more than 100 influential cancer specialists from more than 15 countries publicly denounced the cost of cancer drugs that exceed more than $100,000 a year.

Nonetheless pricing is critical to both patient accessibility and therapy development. If companies cannot make a profit on a possible therapy, it is virtually certain not to appear in the marketplace.

While the subject remains in the background, it does not mean there is a lack of interest. The copy of the Berkeley stem cell cost study that was posted online by the California Stem Cell Report has been read 11,701 times since it was made available in April 2010 on

(For a 2015 look at costs for non-government approved procedures, see this item.)

A copy of the Berkeley study can be found below.

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  1. Anonymous5:09 PM

    ACT's RPEs therapy is supposedly pricing around $5-10k

  2. Stem cells - this is a business that can compete with the trade in arms or drugs, and that the country has a strong stem cell bank will be more significant argument than oil and gas. I know that with early embryonic cells operate some foreign clinics.