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Research Report

Drug Costs vs Probability of Survival in Lung Cancer: Impact of Dosage, Duration, and Immune Checkpoint Inhibitor Combinations

Authored by

Helmy M Guirgis, MD


Cancer Free Foundation, Dana Point, CA


The author reports no relevant financial disclosures.


J Clin Pathways. 2019;5(5):32-36. doi:10.25270/jcp.2019.06.00083
Received April 2, 2019; accepted May 10, 2019.


Helmy M Guirgis, MD


Abstract: Clinical guidelines and pathways recommend use of immune checkpoint inhibitors (ICI) in first- and second-line treatment of advanced/metastatic non-small cell lung cancer (amNSCLC). There is an unmet need for simplified methodology to facilitate clear transmission of financial impact of treatment with full disclosure of drug costs and value. The probability of survival (PoS) was previously defined as (1.0-hazard ratio) and used as surrogates of value. The present study provides a practical methodology to weigh costs vs PoS and value of the ICI in amNSCLC. Methods: Yearly costs of pembrolizumab (Pembro), nivolumab (Nivo), and atezolizumab (Atezo) were calculated. Crude dollar value (cV) was computed as costs/PoS. Results: Costs of Pembro 200 mg flat dose was $157,213 compared with 2.0 mg/kg for 80 kg-patient of $125,770. Proportionate savings were noted over the 90 to 50/kg range. Nivo costs were $159,589 and Atezo was $149,770. In first-line, Pembro in programmed death receptor-ligand-1 (PD-L1) > 50% demonstrated PoS 0.40 and cV $393,033. In squamous histology, Pembro+nab-paclitaxel costs were higher than Pembro-paclitaxel by nearly $31,000. PoS was 0.35, essentially similar regardless of the taxane. Pemro+pemetrexed (Peme) combination costs were $278,207. The PoS in PD-L1 < 1.0% was 0.41 and cV $678,554, improving in >50% to 0.58 and cV $479,667. Atezo+bevacizumab (Bev) four-drug combination costs were $281,918, PoS 0.22, and cV $1,305,973. Conclusions: Simplified methodology to gauge cost and value of the ICI was proposed. In first-line squamous amNSCLC, Pembro-taxane demonstrated significant PoS at enhanced cV. The PoS and cV of Pembro-Peme in nonsquamous were unrivaled. Atezo-Bev-4 drugs were costly relative to PoS. The ICI 2-year use increased costs and diminished cV. The impact of dosage, duration, and patent-combinations on ICI costs are highlighted. Strategies to improve value without undue cost control are proposed.

There is an unmet need for simplified methodology to facilitate clear transmission of financial impact of treatment with full disclosure of drug costs and value. In 2015, the term “probability of survival (PoS)” was coined, defined as (1.0-hazard ratio; HR) and used in castrate-resistant prostate cancer to measure value.1 Overall survival (OS) gains over control with value expressed as cost/OS ratios was later used.2 The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) and the European Society of Clinical Oncology (ESMO) designed platforms assigning points and/or weights to value wherein composite scores were derived from outcome, toxicity, and quality of life (QoL).3,4 ASCO later revised its value framework using HR.5 

In the present analysis, we surveyed the commonly used and approved drugs in advanced/metastatic non-small cell lung cancer (amNSCLC) lacking the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) mutations and anaplastic lymphoma kinase. The HR of death or PoS was the basis of analysis since OS gains were not reached at the closure of some clinical studies. HR are less subject to changes across the time than survival. The analysis was focused on pembrolizumab (Pembro) and atezolizumab (Atezo) in view of the wealth of available outcome data in second- and first-line treatment of amNSLC. Nivolumab (Nivo) was studied only in second-line due to lack of OS or PoS in first-line by December 2018. Pemetrexed (Peme)6 and bevacizumab (Bev)7 were included as references since they were approved for nonsquamous treatment prior to EGFR recognition. Docetaxel (Doc)7 was used as a control in various clinical studies. The main objective was to weigh costs vs PoS and crude dollar value (cV) of the immune checkpoint inhibitors (ICI). A secondary objective was to investigate the impact of dosage, duration, and drug combinations on costs.


Drug doses, frequency, OS, and HR at the 95% CI were quoted from previously published clinical studies. Parent company 2018 prices in the United States Dollar (USD) were utilized. Costs were calculated for 1 and 2 years with Nivo 240 mg every 2 weeks. Pembro 2.0 mg/kg vs 200 mg total dose, Atezo 1200 mg, Bev 15 mg/kg, and Peme 500 mg/m2 every 3 weeks were computed. Each drug was measured against its own control. Costs of generic drugs < $1200 were not included. The cV was computed as cost/PoS and relative value (RV) as $100,000/cost/PoS.


Doc7 carries a black-box warning assigned by the Food and Drug Administration. The grade 3-4 adverse events (AEs) of Doc were reported at >20%, Pembro, Nivo, and Atezo were <10%. Except for Doc, the ICI improved the QoL.8-12 

Drug Costs

Costs of Pembro 2 mg/kg x 80-kg patient were $125,770. The dose was later switched by the parent company to a flat dose of 200 mg at costs of $157,213—higher by $31,443 than the 80-kg-body-weight dose. The 60 kg cost was $94,328 with $62,885 savings per patient. Proportionate savings were noted over the 90 to 50/kg range. The 200-mg dose was uniformly adopted in all first-line results. Nivo costs were $159,589, and Atezo costs were $149,604. There was no significant cost difference between the three ICI.

In second-line, the OS, HR, PoS, and ICI cost are shown in Table 1. Pembro OS gain over Doc was 57 days in programmed death-ligand 1 (PD-L1) >1.0% at 0.29 PoS.8 In squamous histology,9 Nivo OS gain were 96 days and PoS 0.41. In nonsquamous,10 OS was 84 days and PoS was 0.27, lower than in squamous histology. Atezo OS ranged from 87 days to 111 days with an average PoS 0.26.11,12 


In first-line nonsquamous histology (Table 2), Bev costs were $132,314 and PoS 0.21.6. Peme costs were $120,994, and PoS was 0.37 in the Zukin study13 and 0.22 in PARAMOUNT.14 The PoS of Pembro monotherapy in >50% PD-L1 was 0.40 (KEYNOTE-024),15,16 cV $393,033, and RV 0.25. In KEYNOTE-042, PoS in PD-L1 > 1.0 was 0.19, and in >50% PoS was 0.31.17 


The results on ICI-combination therapy are shown in Table 3. In squamous cell (KEYNOTE-407),18 costs of Pembro+nab-paclitaxel+carboplatin were $189,153. Estimated costs of four doses of generic paclitaxel were $1000 vs nab-paclitaxel of nearly $32,000. Regardless of the taxane used, the 0.36 PoS was not significantly different. 



The PoS of Pembro-Peme-combinations in <1% PD-L1 was 0.41 and improved in > 50% to 0.58.19,20 The cV ranged from $479,667 to $678,554 and RV 0.22 to 0.18, respectively. The yearly costs of $278,207 were doubled, and cV decreased at 2-year extended therapy.

In IMPOWER 150 study , the 4-drug combination of Atezo+Bev+chemotherapy was tested vs Bev+chemotherapy.21 The PoS was modest at 0.22, costs were $281,918, cV $1,281,445, and RV 0.07. The results of the three combinations are shown in Table 3.


In the present investigation, the objective was to weigh the ICI costs vs PoS and cV calculated as cost/PoS ratios. To enhance retention and recall, the cV were expressed in RV to $100,000, the average cost-effectiveness ratio in the United States. There was minimal cost difference between the three ICI analyzed. However, significant differences in PoS and cV were noted. The ICI costs were doubled at year 2 of continued therapy.

Patients with newly diagnosed cancer earnestly seek information on the extent of disease, survival, QoL, and treatment costs. Legislation on “surprise billing,” or unexpected medical bills, sent to patients are being formulated.22 Reports on drug costs are scarce and rarely supported by drug companies, and US law prohibits discussion of drug costs during the approval process. The ASCO and ESMO value platforms have been erroneously interpreted as minimizing the role of costs. Defining drug value has been elusive with perspectives differing from patient, society, provider to drug company.23 Basically, value is either based on cost-effectiveness analysis or outcome per dollar spent.24-26 The cost of the incremental gain in PoS or OS in prostate and lung cancer were previously reported.1,2 

Using the methodology of this analysis, ie, use of PoS, may send to patients and families a message of hope rather than fear of death. Rounding-up the cV results to the second digit could eventually facilitate clearer transmission of economic issues to stakeholders. Calculations were carried out in a few minutes once the data were entered, demonstrating the ease of the method.

It should be noted that the methodology failed to incorporate health-related QoL and toxicity. Fortunately, the ICI class was reported to improve the QoL with grade 3-4 AEs of < 10%. The methodology is not intended for medical economists and clinical researchers but rather for busy community oncologists, pharmacists, and nurses. The PoS did not capture the rate and depth of response to the ICI. Scarcity of drug comparative studies and subset analysis could undermine the validity of the results. No drug comparison could be made since HR and PoS are dependent on the study design, selection of the population, performance status, and confidence intervals. 

The cost-saving results of Pembro using weight-based dosage over the 200-mg flat fit-all dose were consistent with Goldstein et al findings.27 The 160 mg total dose in an 80-kg patient reduced the costs by $31,443. Proportionate savings were noted over the 90 to 50 kg range.

In first-line, the results confirmed the positive impact of PD-L1 >50% on Pembro monotherapy. However, the PoS and RV in KEYNOTE-02415,16 were higher than in KEYNOTE-042.17 

The addition of chemotherapy to the ICI enhanced the outcome in multiple major clinical studies. Pembro-Peme combination was initially reported for amNSCLC by Langer et al19 and later confirmed by Gandhi et al.20 Their results confirmed the narrative that chemotherapy-ICI combinations have synergistic effects, probably secondary to neo-antigen release and immune cell activation. Pemro-Peme combination resulted in unprecedented 0.41 to 0.58 PoS, depending on PD-L1 status. The cV ranged from $678,554 to $478,667, and RV ranged from 0.14 to 2.0, respectively. Costs should decrease when Peme becomes available as a generic. Costs of Atezo-Bev 4-drug combination in IMpower150 were considered expensive relative to modest PoS and cV.21 

Pembro added to paclitaxel or nab-paclitaxel was recently described as the combination of choice in squamous cell histology.18 The liposomal nab-paclitaxel reduced the incidence of peripheral neuropathy but increased costs over the generic paclitaxel by nearly $31,000. The PoS were 0.36, irrespective of the taxane used. The squamous type is noted for male predominance with higher incidence of smoking and rates of mutations. Of interest, the PoS of Nivo in second-line was higher in squamous than nonsquamous type.

At present, the tumor mutation burden (TMB)28 is being explored as potential predictive marker in addition to PD-L1. In an exploratory analysis of phase 3 CheckMate 026 trial of patients with a high TMB (defined as ≥243 mutations/Mb), Nivo in first-line improved the progression-free survival over chemotherapy.29 Results of Nivo/Ipilimumab on OS using TMB are promising.30 The search continues for standardized, reliable, and rapid TMB tests.


The present investigation presents a practical methodology to weigh drug costs vs PoS and cV with focus on the ICI. There was minimal cost difference between the three ICI analyzed. However, significant differences in PoS and cV were noted. The ICI costs were doubled at 2-year of continued therapy. The impact of dosage, duration, and patent-combinations on ICI costs was highlighted. Strategies were proposed to reduce drug costs, enhance PoS, and improve cV without undue cost limits or control. 


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14. Paz-Arez L, de Marinis F, Dediu M, et al. PARAMOUNT: Final overall survival results of the phase III study of maintenance pemetrexed versus placebo immediately after induction treatment with pemetrexed plus cisplatin for advanced nonsquamous non-small-cell lung cancer. J Clin Oncol. 2013;31(23):2895-2902. doi:10.1200/JCO.2012.47.1102

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