Pharmacies across the U.S. will begin receiving shipments of a generic form of the revolutionary cancer pill Gleevec this week after the drug lost its patent protection on Monday.
The generic version of drug, known as imatinib, is likely to cost about 30 percent less than brand-name Gleevec, says Kal Sundaram, the CEO of Sun Pharmaceuticals, the Mumbai, India-based company that will make the first generic.
Specific prices will be negotiated with insurers and pharmacy wholesalers, he says.
The launch is one move in the ongoing push and pull over rising drug prices. More than a dozen major drugs are losing their patent protection this year, leaving them open to competition from generics.
Still, drug prices overall continue to climb.
When Gleevec was launched by pharmaceutical giant Novartis in 2001 to treat chronic myeloid leukemia in adults, it was a huge advance in the treatment of that disease and in cancer therapy overall. The drug has since been approved to treat other types of leukemia and blood cancers, some rare skin cancers and some gastrointestinal tumors. Sales last year reached $4.7 billion worldwide and $2.5 billion in the U.S.
While the launch of generic imatinib will undoubtedly cut the price of treatment, the effect may not be dramatic at first.
Sundaram says he expects his medication to capture about 30 percent of the U.S. market over the next six months, leaving the rest to branded Gleevec. After that, generics from other companies may go on sale, which could lead to even lower prices.
Since Gleevec was launched, Novartis has raised the price of Gleevec often, nudging it even higher in recent years. The price for one pill climbed from $92.74 in 2010 to $179.93 in 2014, according to data from Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which spent almost $1 billion on Gleevec in 2014.
A price cut of 30 percent would bring down the cost of the medicine to about what it was in 2013.
Novartis spokeswoman Julie Masow says the company expects Gleevec sales to fall "in a similar manner to other major comparable products that have experienced the loss of market exclusivity."
Sundaram says Sun is planning to support sales of its generic imatinib by appropriating many of the tactics used by makers of brand-name drug manufacturers.
The company will have a discount card to ensure patients only have to pay a $10 copay and will cover up to $700 to help patients meet their deductibles.
Drugmakers, including Novartis, offer similar discounts to help keep patients buying their branded drugs after competing medications go on sale. Insurance companies often charge patients a higher copay for brand-name drugs to help steer them to lower costs generics.