COMMENTARY: Biopharmaceuticals healing Delaware

Nearly 22,000 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer this year. Another 14,000 will die from the disease.

One Delaware biotech firm is working to change that. In December, Wilmington-based AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals released Lynparza, a new medicine for women with advanced ovarian cancer.

Innovative treatments like Lynparza help Delaware patients live longer and healthier lives. Drug development also keeps Delaware’s economy healthy by creating jobs and supporting local businesses. But now, Congress may jeopardize the health of our state and its residents with ill-advised changes to Medicare Part D and patent laws. Our representatives in Washington must reject such moves.

Thanks to billions plowed into biopharmaceutical research, patients here in Delaware and across the country have more treatment options than ever before. In 2014, the Food and Drug Administration approved 41 new medicines — the most since 1996 — to treat cancer, diabetes, Hepatitis C, HIV and other serious diseases.

Rev. Robert Hall

Rev. Robert Hall

These new medicines, along with hundreds of other treatments developed in recent years, have significantly improved patients’ health. Cancer mortality dropped 22 percent from 1991 to 2011. Put simply, better drugs helped make cancer less deadly.

Biopharmaceutical innovation has also delivered lifesaving treatments to Americans battling HIV/AIDS. New drugs have chopped the death rate from AIDS by 85 percent since the 1990s. These medicines have transformed HIV from a death sentence into a treatable condition that allows patients to live up to 50 years after they’re first diagnosed.

The biopharmaceutical industry does more than just improve patients’ health — it also boosts Delaware’s economy. The state’s biotech firms directly support more than 9,300 jobs. Another 29,000 jobs depend indirectly on the industry. All told, Delaware’s biotech industry generates $5.1 billion in total economic output per year.

A large part of that output comes from the interaction between biopharmaceutical firms and Delaware businesses. Biopharmaceutical companies have nearly 800 working relationships with local vendors, who supply those biotech firms with everything from research equipment to financial services.

These local Delaware vendors receive over $650 million from biotech companies.

Unfortunately, federal intervention could soon sweep away these economic and health benefits. Congress is considering legislation that will make it riskier and less appealing for biotech firms to invest in new drug development.

One proposal will weaken patent laws by making it harder for biotech firms to defend their drug designs against patent violators in court. Without patent protections, competitor firms could steal a company’s drug formula. Developing that formula — and then testing it to prove it’s safe and effective — can take over a decade. And it costs, on average, $2.56 billion to develop a drug and bring it to market, according to a recent Tufts study.

If biotech firms can’t protect their investments in court with the aid of strong patent protections, they won’t embark on new drug development projects. That means fewer new treatments for patients and reduced sales for Delaware vendors.

Another change will tamper with Medicare D, the prescription drug program for elderly and disabled Americans. Part D doesn’t need fixing — it boasts a 94 percent satisfaction rating and costs almost $350 billion less than originally expected.

Yet the White House and some in Congress are proposing mandatory rebates on prescription drugs purchased through Medicare Part D plans.

These rebates essentially impose price controls on biopharmaceutical products. If the government has the power to arbitrarily set drug prices, firms will curtail their investments in new research and development. That’s because price controls could deprive them of the chance to earn back their investments.

The end result will be fewer new drugs and fewer jobs.

If Congress weakens Medicare Part D and patent laws, Delaware’s biopharmaceutical companies won’t have the confidence to invest in new cures and treatments. That means fewer life-saving drugs like Lynparza. To ensure a healthy future for Delaware’s economy and for patients across the nation, lawmakers must scratch these proposed changes.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Rev. Robert P. Hall is the executive director of the Delaware Ecumenical Council on Children and Families in Wilmington.

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