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New ‘Biosimilars’ May Help Reduce Medication Costs

Ben Andrick and Sammuel Anderegg You may have heard about a new kind of medicine on the market that may help reduce costs for patients. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the first “biosimilar” medicine called Zarxio. Similar to the existing brand-name medication Neupogen, Zarxio boosts white blood cell counts in people who have cancer, helping them to fight infections. Zarxio is expected to cost less than Neupogen.

Much like a generic is similar to the brand-name drug, each biosimilar drug is similar to an already-approved biologic drug. Biologic drugs are developed through a complex process that utilizes sugars, proteins, cells, or tissues from humans, animals, or microorganisms. There are many biologics on the market, and they are used to treat several medical conditions.

Examples of commonly used biologics are adalimumab (Humira®) to treat rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis, epoetin (Epogen® or Procrit®) to increase red blood cell production in the body, and trastuzumab (Herceptin®) to treat breast cancer. Making medications from living cells is a very complicated process and requires a large investment of time and money. That’s why biologics can be expensive. The average daily cost for a biologic is $45 vs. a non-biologic medication at $2.

Biosimilar drugs are very similar to, but are not exact copies of, the original biologic drug in the way the product is made. However, biosimilars produce equivalent clinical outcomes to that of the original biologic, and they cost less. 

Biosimilars have been compared to generic drugs. However, there are several important differences between these types of medications. Generic medications are exact copies of the original drug product with the exact same active ingredient and name. Biosimilars, on the other hand, work the same way as the original biologic medications but are not exact copies of the original medication.  

The FDA requires all biosimilar medications to be approved for safety and effectiveness. Current state laws require biosimilars to be specifically prescribed for you by a doctor or other healthcare prescriber. Some day, pharmacists may be allowed to switch prescriptions from a biologic to a biosimilar if it is cost-effective for the patient.

Although biosimilars are new to the United States, they have been offered to patients in Europe for almost a decade. Biosimilars have the potential to drive down drug costs, saving the healthcare system billions of dollars and providing lower-cost treatment options for patients.  Be on the lookout for new biosimilars in the near future.

Learn more about biosimilar medications.

By Ben Andrick, Pharm.D., PGY1 Pharmacy Resident, Georgia Regents Health System; and Samm Anderegg, Pharm.D., M.S., BCPS, Pharmacy Manager, Ambulatory Care & Oncology, Georgia Regents Health System