Cancer Drug Revenue Increased 70% Over a Decade

Sharon Worcester

November 05, 2021

Cumulative annual revenue from cancer drug sales increased by 70% among the world's largest pharmaceutical companies over the past decade, a retrospective analysis shows.

By comparison, revenues from other types of medications decreased by 18% during the same period.

"Cancer drugs now account for approximately 27% of new drug approvals in the United States, compared to 4% in the 1980s. During this period, there has also been a substantial increase in the price of cancer medicines," Daniel E. Myers, MD, of the University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada, and colleagues explain in their report, published online October 6 in Cancer.

To investigate the impact of these trends on pharmaceutical earnings, the investigators performed a retrospective analysis of the revenue generated from oncology drugs in comparison with total drug revenue among 10 large pharmaceutical companies between 2010 and 2019, using itemized product-sales data publicly available through company websites or annual filings.

The data, adjusted for inflation and converted to 2019 US dollars, revealed that annual revenue for the 10 companies increased from $55.8 billion to $95.1 billion during the study period. Most of the growth in revenue occurred in the past 5 years. Over the decade, non-oncology drug revenue decreased by 18% — from $342.2 billion to $281.5 billion.

Overall, revenues from cancer drugs accounted for 25% of the net revenues generated by these companies in 2019, up from 14% in 2010. Roche had both the highest net revenue — $23.9 billion in 2010 and $27.7 billion in 2019 — and the greatest proportion of revenue from cancer drugs — 63.5% in 2016 and 57% in 2019.

Merck saw substantial growth in revenue from cancer drug sales, particularly between 2016 and 2019. In 2016, the company generated $2.4 billion from these medicine, representing 6% of total revenue. By 2019, that amount had grown to $12.3 billion, representing almost 30% of total revenue. This increase was driven largely by their drug pembrolizumab, which alone drew in about $11 billion in 2019, or 12% of total oncology revenue, the investigators note.

Sanofi and GSK had some of the lowest net revenues from cancer drugs during the study period. For instance, in 2019, GSK generated $300 million in revenue from oncology drugs, representing less than 1% of the company's total revenue, down from 3% of its total revenue in 2010.

"With the cost of cancer drugs rapidly rising, further work is needed to understand how this [overall] increase in sales revenue reflects industry profit, and how this is linked (or not) to improvements in patient and population outcomes," they conclude. Although data regarding how cancer drug development affects population mortality rates are limited, "there is a notion within biomedicine that rising corporate profitability may not translate into proportional societal gains."

No funding for the study has been disclosed. The authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Cancer. Published online October 6, 2021. Abstract

Sharon Worcester is an award-winning medical journalist at MDedge News, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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