WASHINGTON — Federal health officials said Friday that the government is accelerating development of a newly synthesized drug for treatment of AIDS in the hope that competition among alternatives will force down the high price of medication.
The new drug is cyano-thymidine, one of a family of experimental chemicals that is intended to suppress reproduction of the AIDS virus in the cells of human patients while minimizing toxic side effects.
The only drug the federal government has approved thus far for treatment of AIDS is azidothymidine, or AZT, a product of the Burroughs Wellcome Co., whose high cost--from $7,000 to $10,000 a year per patient--has been widely criticized. The company contends that the price reflects its production costs, but government researchers suggest that, as in any free market, competition is likely to force the price to consumers down.
In an effort to field a promising competitor to AZT, the National Cancer Institute is issuing a formal call for proposals from pharmaceutical firms to collaborate with the government in manufacturing and testing cyano-thymidine at what officials said was an unusually early stage in its development.
"Private companies are being invited to come forward and work with the government on this potential drug at a much earlier stage than is usually the case," said Dr. Samuel Broder, director of the NCI's clinical oncology program.
Usually, Broder noted, manufacturers are brought in at a much later stage, when laboratory research and human trials have more clearly demonstrated a drug's potential benefit and safety. In this case, he said, the cancer institute hopes to telescope the process significantly by persuading private firms to share a larger portion of the financial risk.
May Not Be Cheaper
He said there was no reason to believe that cyano-thymidine would be inherently cheaper to produce than AZT. But Broder said that experience has shown that the most effective way to drive consumer costs down is to "induce competition."
The new drug has been shown to be effective against the AIDS virus in tissue culture, with less of a tendency to suppress a cell enzyme that lends the drug AZT its toxicity. However, cyano-thymidine has only recently been synthesized and has not yet been tested in humans.
The drug is under development by scientists at the National Cancer Institute and the Michigan Cancer Foundation, where AZT also was first synthesized.