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A new drug that could save the US billions of dollars just got approved

Lydia Ramsey
syringe needle biotech
syringe needle biotech

(Wikimedia Commons)
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) just approved a version of Remicade, a drug used to treat autoimmune diseases like Crohn's disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

The drug, developed by Celltrion and which will be co-marketed by Pfizer, goes by the name "Inflectra." It's a form of infliximab, but will carry the suffix "-dyyb" to differentiate itself. This is the second "biosimilar" to be approved by the FDA.

The drug is called a biosimilar because it is like a generic version of a biologic medication, a medicine produced by living cells.

But it's a bit more complicated than that. Unlike generics for chemical-based drugs — think antibiotics or birth-control pills — that can be interchangeable with branded versions, the copycats of biologic medications, produced using living cells, have a few more caveats. That's because the drugs might have different reactions in your body.

With the approval, the FDA will allow it to be used to treat:

  • adult and pediatric Crohn's disease

  • ulcerative colitis

  • moderate to severe plaque rheumatoid arthritis

  • ankylosing spondylitis

  • active psoriatic arthritis

  • adults with severe plaque psoriasis

Biosimilars like this one might be the best way to drive down the cost of biologic medications that have been around for a while. For example, the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics estimated that biosimilars would have a $41 billion impact on the pharmaceutical industry over the next five years.

By other calculations, the US could save $250 billion over the next 10 years. The discount of putting people on far less costly biosimilars — even just new patients who have never taken the original — will be substantial.

Even with this second approval, there are concerns about how and when biosimilars will get to market.

The FDA approved its first biosimilar drug in March 2015, making Inflectra a critical second approval. With its decisions, the FDA has shown a willingness to approve biosimilar drugs so long as there are "no clinically meaningful differences in terms of safety and effectiveness from the reference product."

The first drug, called Zarxio, helps patients in cancer treatment fight infection and has the same active ingredient as the biologic it's similar to: Neupogen.

Zarxio was approved because it was able to show that it was just as safe and effective as Neupogen. The warnings of side effects for Zarxio are virtually identical to Neupogen. Even so, the two are not interchangeable, which means that there is a chance that if a patient were to switch between one and the other, there could be a change in the way the medicine reacts with their system. The FDA placed Inflectra under similar regulation, according to a news release.

"Celltrion's infliximab-dyyb is a biosimilar but not identical to Remicade," Dr. Jay Siegel, the chief biotechnology officer and head of scientific strategy and policy at Johnson & Johnson — which owns Remicade — said in an emailed statement.

Siegel also referenced the importance of the fact that the biosimilar is not considered interchangeable.

Lessons to learn

Zarxio, owned by pharmaceutical company Novartis' generic-drug unit, Sandoz, was the first biosimilar to make it to the US market.

But it hasn't had the uptake that people expected.

That's because the drug was just a 15% discount off Neupogen's list price. That wasn't enough to get pharmacy-benefits managers, which are responsible for negotiating prices of drugs between pharmaceutical companies and health insurers, to switch their plans to the new drug.

At the same time, it takes much more time and money to develop a biosimilar than a typical generic medication. This means that while discounts can't exactly be slim, they won't be the drastic discounts seen when generics enter the market against chemical-based drugs.

Where the price point will have to be set for there to be substantial use remains to be seen.

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