Aspen Pharmacare is under investigation by the European Commission over its pricing practices for five cancer medicines.

EU antitrust regulators will investigate whether the South African generics firm abused a dominant market position for the niche medicines by price gouging.

It’s the first time the Commission has investigated concerns about excessive pricing practices in the pharmaceutical industry and will cover reported increases of ‘several hundred percent’.

Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, said: "When we get sick, we may depend on specific drugs to save or prolong our lives. Companies should be rewarded for producing these pharmaceuticals to ensure that they keep making them into the future.

“But when the price of a drug suddenly goes up by several hundred percent, this is something the Commission may look at. More specifically, in this case we will be assessing whether Aspen is breaking EU competition rules by charging excessive prices for a number of medicines."

The five generic medicines involved - chlorambucil, melphalan, mercaptopurine, tioguanine and busulfan - are used for treating a broad range of cancers, including hematologic tumours.

The investigation will cover all countries in the European Economic Area with the exception of Italy, which fined the company €5 million last September after Aspen increased its prices for treatments for onco-haematological patients by up to 1,500 percent.