The drug company Novartis has launched a “biosimilar” drug in the U.S., a class of medicines that have been available in Europe but are new to the U.S.
Biosimilar drugs are cheaper copies of complicated biological drug treatments, which offer “a new level of therapeutic abilities,” says Albert Wertheimer, a professor of pharmacy economics at Temple University.
“These biotechnology drugs, in many cases, mimic items that are made by our own bodies,” Wertheimer says.
Novartis’ new offering is similar to the Amgen drug Neupogen, which is used to boost the number of white blood sells in cancer patients. Biosimilar drugs are close, but not exact, copies, because unlike chemical drugs, it is not possible to make identical versions of brand-name biological drugs.
“The leading drugs on the market right now, around the world, are all pretty much without exception biotech drugs. So once the intellectual property for those treatments expire, the biosimilar space has a pretty significant market to target,” says Paris-based analyst Gustav Ando of IHS.
Biosimilar drugs are harder to make, so they’re not as cheap as generic versions of chemical drugs. Cost savings could be as little as 15 percent. Still, that could add up to billions of dollars saved in the U.S. health care industry.
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