Nina Kjellson was just two years out of college, working as a research associate at Oracle Partners, a hedge fund in New York, when a cabbie gave her a stock tip. There was a company in New Jersey, he told her, trying to resurrect thalidomide, a drug that was infamous for causing severe birth defects, as a treatment for cancer.

Kjellson was born in Finland, where the memory of thalidomide, which was given to mothers to treat morning sickness but led to babies born without arms or legs, was particularly raw because the drug hit Northern Europe hard. But she was on the hunt for new cancer drugs, and her interest was piqued. She ended up investing a small amount of her own money in Celgene (CELG). That was 1999.

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  • The price was raised every year until it reached “where it should be as a cancer drug.” WHAT? Who determines where the price of a cancer drug “should be?” Totally shameless greed…exactly why we need international competition for US cancer patients

  • I definitely think Chutzpah is too nice/light a word. I remember obtaining thalidomide for patients with prostate cancer (PC) who were desperate for any drug that might extend their lives. The drug was available via the leprosarium in Carville, LA for a dollar or two. But at the doses prescribed for PC, my patients were falling asleep at their computers or having severe obstipation, and the results insofar as PSA ↓ were not impressive. I was astounded when thalidomide showed efficacy in multiple myeloma (MM) and the prices charged for this cheap drug escalated. I do understand that the profits made by Celgene gave them the ability to explore lenalidomide (Revlimid®) and then pomalidomide (Pomalyst®) but the billions they made due to raping the public re drug pricing is unjust. There is always a reasonable profit to be made but at one point that profit margin moves into the financial rape category. I think Celgene got greedy– as is the nature of most of the people and corporations in the world. Now that I, a HemOnc doc, also have a HemOnc illness in the form of light chain amyloidosis (AL), a disease that is a b-cell neoplastic disorder and that is treated by virtually all of the drugs that are effective for MM, I see the impact of this financial rape when it comes to my own healthcare. Yes, I have made a good living as a physician but now, in my 70’s, with a much younger wife, I do not care to see my assets vaporize at the cost of $3,000 per month for 3 pills per month. That is rape, in my opinion. If the USA had an open market with competition from sources outside of our borders, we would see prices ↓. I am sure that one key issue would be quality control (QC) but that is easily covered by creating a new industry to do QC testing at intervals on products manufactured abroad. But whether our corrupt government that is worked over by lobbyists in this country would ever approve of such an insightful development is unlikely. It would have to be a result of outcries from those that are being screwed by big pharma and putting so much pressure on our “elected” officials that such changes could be possible. Given the lack of unity in our country, this is highly unlikely to happen. Bottom line: everyone is entitled to make a living and a decent one but not when it becomes flagrantly obvious that this has become financial rape.

    • Insightful article. If one USA State adopts a Medicare for all policy that every employee and employer must pay into then the success of this policy would be copied by the rest of States quickly as it would be popular among voters. Canada’s first province to adopt universal health care in 1963 , Alberta, was quickly rolled into national health care coverage for all disputes efforts of pharmaceuticals, doctors and vested interests. It can be done. Maybe California can be first as stronger economy. Good luck USA from a Canadian enjoying good cheap health regardless of pre-existing conditions or ability to pay.

  • I learned about Celgene a few years prior to the release of thalidomide, while I was an analyst at Pfizer. When I found that Celgene was an off-shoot of a carpet company, and then the first approval was in the treatment of leprosy, I gave up…

  • I have an observation about these sentences above – “Celgene also found new ways to defend its patents. One way involved what’s known as a Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy, or REMS.”
    Celgene did not invent the REMS – it was a set of controls the FDA put upon Celgene to keep thalidomide away from the general patient population. Celgen found a way to capitalize on what they initially decried as a burden.

  • My sister has multiple myeloma, her doctor prescribed Revlimid. However, This was very expensive so we bought online Indian generic lenalidomide from which was very affordable and with same effectiveness as Revlimid for us. She has been on lenalidomide since September. counts have dropped significantly. The only side effect is that she get tired maybe 1 or 2 days during a 21-day cycle. She’s started living again.
    I wish Celgene should launch affordable treatment, It would be very great for all the needy patients.

    • William, see my comment from today 1/27/19. It is highly relevant in that my recommendation to lower prices by having an open market in this country with far easier availability of foreign pharmaceuticals would reduce drug costs significantly.

      Years ago we found a high degree of efficacy of ketoconazole for treating men with PC. Having my practice in Los Angeles, I instructed my patients to go to Tijuana where Ketoconazole sold for 52 cents per tablet. That was a major improvement over $6 per tablet when using a treatment regimen that called for two tablets three times per day (e.g., $3 vs. $36 per day or $90 vs. over $1,000 per month). We analyzed blood levels of the ketoconazole (aka Nizoral) in patients using the Mexican brand and found them to be slightly better than the American brought ketoconazole despite being made by Janssen. This is a good example that confirms your sister’s story and supports a new industry that allows for open market pricing.

  • In its earliest days, Celgene’s primary product was highly pure, chiral intermediates. The business became commoditized (it was eventually sold for a paltry but much-needed $15 million in 1998), so the company began to focus on creating chirally pure versions of racemic drugs. It’s only major hit was Focalin, a pure version of Ritalin, that was licensed to Novartis and generated a few hundred million in sales. But the goal of improving racemic drugs is what led Sol Barer and David Stirling to Gilla Kaplan at Rockefeller University, where she had uncovered the boundless potential for thalidomide. This led eventually to Celgene marketing thalidomide, and then Revlimid and Pomalyst, in Multiple Myeloma. These three drugs are a major part of the reason that the five-year survival rate for MM has increased 400% in the past 20 years.

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