Pharmas Market with Mike Huckman

Amgen's Full-Court Press


On Amgen's conference call the other day regarding the biotech company's cutbacks, officials repeatedly stated that they think the federal government's new, restrictive guidelines for use and payment of Amgen's bread-and-butter anemia drugs will hurt patients and specifically, result in the need for more risky, old-fashioned blood transfusions to treat the condition.

A recent filing shows Amgen spent more than nine million bucks in the first half of this year lobbying Washington. But it's not just hoping politicians will help reverse the policy, it is also appealing to the news media for assistance.

My producer, Ruth, got a voicemail today from a PR person who identified herself as being "with Amgen" (she's actually with the Hill & Knowlton PR firm which AMGN has apparently hired) in her greeting and who then sent Ruth this follow-up story pitch in an email with the subject line, "Blood Shortage Crisis and Its Effect on Cancer Patients":

Dear Ruth,

You and your colleagues have probably done stories about the acute shortage of blood in New York City in recent weeks. But these urgent calls for blood are not isolated events.

Blood shortages are occurring in at least a dozen states across the country including New York, Maryland, California and Tennessee.  At Houston's M.D. Anderson, one of the nation's leading cancer centers, 22 surgeries have been postponed this year alone because there simply wasn't enough blood available in case of emergency.   

To make matters worse a new report indicates the available pool of blood donors is considerably overestimated nationally adding to any potential shortfall.

For many practicing oncologists and their critically-ill cancer patients, local blood supply levels are of great concern because patients receiving chemotherapy may need transfusions to manage their related anemia.

The only alternative to blood transfusions is erythropoiesis-stimulating agents (ESAs), which have been used for the last 15 years and are safe and effective when used according to the FDA-approved label.

However, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) recently announced strict limitations on the use of ESAs for those that receive Medicare benefits. That means, thousands of cancer patients will have to resort to blood transfusions to manage their anemia-related fatigue.

As you consider filing an update on this important story, we'd like to offer an important resource.

Dr. Michael Auerbach is a practicing oncologist who has done significant research on blood transfusions, and is the author of the book "Conversations About Cancer." He believes that limiting the use of ESAs will only further exacerbate an already fragile blood supply system. Dr. Yousuf Gaffar is another cancer specialist who can offer insight into this problem.

Cancer patients who recently had access to ESAs to treat their anemia related to chemotherapy may now require numerous blood transfusions throughout their cancer treatment. Blood transfusions are burdensome for cancer patients and consume a precious, limited resource at a time of critical need.

Thanks for your interest in this important story, and we'll be following up with you shortly to see to see if you'd like to talk with Dr. Auerbach directly.

We checked with Houston's M.D. Anderson. A spokesperson for the medical center was not pleased about M.D. Anderson being mentioned in the Amgen story pitch, but she confirmed the blood shortage problem in an email: "However, it is important to note that the surgeries that have been postponed have been incredibly complicated operations that require very large volumes of blood. For example, one case that was postponed recently was an 18-hour procedure that would have required 30-40 units of blood."

Blood shortages are also not uncommon during the accident-heavy summertime. Anemia drugs are responsible for about half of Amgen's revenue and profits. Because of ongoing concerns about plummeting sales within the franchise the stock dipped to a new intra-day low today of $48.30, but then rallied along with the overall market.

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