Pharmaceutical innovation can significantly extend the lives of cancer patients, a new US study has concluded.

Working in conjunction with the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest (CMPI), economist Dr Frank Lichtenberg of Columbia University and the US National Bureau of Economic Research examined the effect of chemotherapy innovation and other factors (e.g., intensity of cancer screening) on the hazard rates of cancer patients using longitudinal data on colorectal, lung, breast and prostate cancer from nine US states over the period 1991-2003.

The life expectancy of cancer survivors in 1991 was around 8.2 years, the study found. It went on to calculate that the 12.7-year increase in chemotherapy vintage – defined as the year in which a drug was first approved by the US Food and Drug Administration – during the period 1991-2002 increased the life expectancy of cancer survivors by 8-12 months or about 10%. The two states with the biggest increases in chemotherapy vintage showed the largest reductions in hazard rates.

“The results of this report unequivocally conclude that if cancer patients obtain new therapies faster they will have longer and more productive lives,” Dr Lichtenberg commented.

The study also noted that the US Medicare system spent about US$475 per cancer survivor on chemotherapy in 2003. Based on a life expectancy of 9.2 years for a cancer survivor, the expected lifetime chemotherapy expenditure (undiscounted) per cancer patient would be US$4,372, including the cost of old and new chemotherapy treatments.

Taking the lower estimate (8 months/0.7 years) of the 1991-2002 increase in life expectancy attributable to the use of newer cancer therapies, that gave an upper-bound estimate of US$6,246 for the average cost per life-year gained from using newer chemotherapy drugs – a “small fraction of some leading economists’ estimates of the value of a US statistical life year”, the study pointed out.

The full study, The Effect of Chemotherapy Innovation on Cancer Survival, 1991-2003: State Level Evidence from the SEE-Medicare Linked Database, can be downloaded from the CMPI’s website at