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Genentech: Senate Eyes Avastin "Crack Down"

Thursday, 29 Nov 2007 | 11:57 AM ET

Senator Herb Kohl (D-Wisconsin), the Chairman of the Senate's Special Committee on Aging, has made public a copy of a letter he recently sent to Genentech's President of Product Development, Dr. Susan Desmond-Hellmann--a frequent guest on CNBC--regarding the company's new policy on the use of the eye drug Lucentis.

Here's a link to the letter. In a nutshell, the company is trying to crack down on the use of its similar and much less expensive (approximately $40 for Avastin vs. $2,000 for Lucentis) cancer drug, Avastin, in lieu of Lucentis for age-related macular degeneration (AMD) which is the leading cause of adult-onset blindness.

In the face of pushback from angry eye doctors, Genentech recently delayed the date that the new policy will take effect to New Year's Day.

In the letter, Sen. Kohl estimates that the move by DNA could cost taxpayers $1 billion-$3 billion and he is calling on his committee to investigate "Genentech's plan to limit Avastin availability." Specifically, he's asking Dr. Desmond-Hellmann to turn over all internal documents by December 7th regarding the Avastin vs. Lucentis situation including minutes, notes and records from last July's Genentech Board meeting. Sen. Kohl writes, "Most troubling about this proposed plan is the fact that it may be due in part to an effort to boost sales of a chemically similar, yet far more expensive drug--Lucentis."

Genentech claims that Avastin and Lucentis are not as much alike as some people might think and cautions that Avastin has not been formally tested for AMD. (The government test is ongoing.) In other words, Genentech is saying, "Use Avastin instead of Lucentis at your own risk." Lucentis (or Avastin) is injected--yes, with a needle--into the eye.

Clinical trials show that Lucentis can not only keep patients' vision from getting worse, but can also restore sight in some people. Sen. Kohl says, "While we're aware of your company's public explanations for it, this decision may serve to increase costs for critical opthamology medicines for seniors and the elderly, as well as eye care patients in general."

Here's Genentech's response which I just got via email from a spokesperson:

"We are aware of the request for information Senator Kohl sent to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) on October 18, 2007. On November 16, 2007, Genentech received a letter request from Sen. Kohl to provide background information related to Genentech’s decision to no longer allow compounding pharmacies to purchase Avastin and related communications. The request letter is not a subpoena; rather, it is a voluntary request for information. Genentech intends to cooperate with Sen. Kohl’s request for information and work closely with Committee staff to answer their questions."

As I've blogged before, I don't think we've heard the end of this. Election year, drug pricing, elderly constituents--it has a lot of haymaking possibilities for politicians.

Questions? Comments? Pharma@cnbc.com