June 11, 2019

Can Women’s Health Follow Personalized Medicine’s Path to Success?

By Amy M. Miller, SWHR President and CEO

Let me tell you a short story about a discovery in women that improved an entire field of treatment.

A pharmaceutical manufacturer had a drug for non-small cell lung cancer (the most common type of lung cancer) that worked wonders in a small group of people: women in Asian countries like Korea and Japan. The company knew there was a way to determine why the drug worked in those few people, so they chased the biomarker and found it.

They learned that patients who responded to the drug had mutations in the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) that made the tumor more susceptible to the drug. Now we can test patients for these mutations to identify those for whom the drug might work.

This discovery, in women, led to targeted treatments for non-small cell lung cancer that improved survival rates and helped the entire field of personalized medicine explode. Over the course of a decade, personalized medicines went from a rarity to 40% of FDA’s newly approved drugs in 2018.

Although personalized medicine has become mainstream, when the idea first emerged, some in industry were skeptical and didn’t want to develop drugs for small markets or diagnostic tests to guide treatment plans. Others thought that targeted drugs and specialized diagnostics would be expensive, that health care providers wouldn’t use them, and that health insurance companies wouldn’t cover and pay for them. This is where I see women’s health today.

While SWHR works with many partners who see the huge untapped market in women’s health, I wonder why I don’t see that same excitement more broadly in the health care industry. Women’s health is viewed as a relatively young and niche area — yet this area serves half of the world’s population.

Despite this neglect, we have seen that investing in women’s health is profitable. Women are the managers of their family’s health care, making 80 percent of household health care spending decisions, and the global women’s health market is estimated to exceed $50 billion by 2025.

Investment in women’s health not only makes investors happy, it improves lives. After a decade of industry inactivity in endometriosis, a painful chronic disease that affects up to 10 percent of reproductive-age women, a new therapy option hit the market in 2018 and more innovations are on the way. Earlier this year, FDA approved the first on-label drug to treat postpartum depression, the most common pregnancy-related complication, giving hope to women and causing Wall Street to rejoice.

SWHR applauds the companies that do invest in women’s health, improving care for women, reducing morbidity and mortality, and expanding treatment options. Some have shortened the diagnostic journey and brought efficiencies to the broader health care system.

However, in order to make women’s health mainstream, incentives should be created to encourage more of these types of investments. New therapies, products, and services for women are slow to come to market, and we must find ways to safely speed their development and give women the health care tools they so desperately want and need.

This week I am moderating a panel at the Precision Medicine Leader Summit on improving women’s health with some of the industry leaders working in this area. I look forward to discussing the opportunities and challenges for drug and diagnostic development for conditions specific to or more prevalent in women, optimizing the delivery of care for women, and the need for continued investment in research and development related to women’s health.