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Why A Cancer Patient Opposes The 'Right To Try' Experimental Cancer Drugs


Imagine you've been diagnosed with cancer. You've been told it's terminal. Doctors have tried everything. The only option left may be experimental, unapproved drugs. You want these drugs no matter what the risk. This week, President Trump urged Congress to pass what's called the Right To Try Act in his State of the Union address. But many doctors, scientists and those involved in research think it may be a bad idea. Michael Becker is the former CEO of two biotech firms working to develop cancer treatments. Mr. Becker also has terminal cancer. Michael Becker joins us from Bucks County, Pa. Thanks so much for being with us.

MICHAEL BECKER: My pleasure, Scott. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And I have to begin by asking you, how are you?

BECKER: (Laughter) Feeling pretty good. The quality of life at the moment is not too bad. And I'm happy to still be here.

SIMON: Why are you suspicious of the Right To Try Act?

BECKER: You know, I agree with President Trump that patients like me that are facing a terminal illness should have an opportunity to access experimental drugs. Fortunately, we already do. It's the Compassionate Use mechanism for the Food and Drug Administration.

SIMON: Having read about you, you just don't believe that this would be redundant but could be dangerous.

BECKER: Yeah. If you put the two side by side, there's only one difference. And that is the FDA. The FDA gets taken out of the equation with the proposed legislation. The FDA is in the equation with the existing regulations. Compassionate Use process is extremely easy. Basically, go to your doctor. Find one who will agree to administer the therapy. Contact the drug company. See if they're also willing to agree. Fill out the paperwork. And then if the FDA doesn't object, the patient can get the treatment. And the only difference with the new legislation is that last part. The FDA is taken out of the equation.

SIMON: With respect, why care so much about the FDA if a life is hanging in the balance?

BECKER: So as a terminal cancer patient, I would, you know, obviously love to try something that's going to prolong my life or cure my cancer. The reality is that that's a very, very small statistic in terms of drug development discovery. Only 5 percent of drugs that go through phase one development actually go on to be approved. So you're talking about giving people medications that, in historical context, have only had a 5 percent chance of actually working at the end of the day. And then you're exposing these patients to, potentially, additional toxicities that could accelerate their death or cause additional problems for them.

SIMON: I'm sure you've run all this through your mind. Why not - I was about to ask you, why not let the patient decide? Why not let you decide?

BECKER: Well, the problem becomes that you have a lot of false hope as a terminal cancer patient. You want to cling to anything that's going to sound like it's an opportunity to live longer or have a better quality of life. And that hope can sometimes cover up the realities of some of the more sinister aspects of getting a drug, which are things go wrong. So I could take a drug that was purported to help me, and it may actually make my condition worse. It could create other difficulties for me. And then my quality of life may be even worse than it was originally. That's what I would fear as a - or what I do fear as a patient.

SIMON: Yeah. And would it potentially take advantage of people at their most vulnerable?

BECKER: Absolutely. I can't tell you how many times I see miracle cures and herbal remedies and everything from unsolicited emails to Internet ads, you know, talking about cures and treatments for cancer. If you take the FDA as the policeman out of that equation, I'm scared to death as to what cancer patients or other patients facing terminal illnesses may be subjected to.

SIMON: Well, Mr. Becker, good luck to you. We are so grateful to speak with you. Thank you so much.

BECKER: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.