A group of 120 physicians and researchers published a paper this week broadly criticizing the ethics of drugs manufacturers who enjoy unjustifiably high profit margins on life-saving cancer drugs.

The paper claimed that drug companies take unfair advantage of people who must decide between paying exorbitant drug prices, and literally dying.

The unusual paper, published online in the American Society of Hematology's medical journal Blood, compared the costs and revenue associated with a drug for chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), a condition that responds very well to treatment but can be deadly if left unchecked. For those receiving the drug, 80 percent survived over a ten-year period.

The cost of the drug, however, is usually above six figures.

To make their case, the physicians and researchers who authored the study examined imatinib, trade name Gleevec in the United States, or Gilvec in international markets.

Drug manufacturer Novartis introduced the drug in 2003 with a $30,000 price tag — a price that Novartis' CEO Daniel Vasella has publicly acknowledged as a significant cost.

"We agree with those who say the price we have set for Gleevec is high. But given all the factors, we believe it is a fair price," Vasella wrote in his 2003 book Magic Cancer Bullet.

Gleevec now wholesales for over $76,000. By the time it reaches retailers, the price tends to be much higher.

The authors of the Blood paper argue that high drug prices affect patient care. "We believe the unsustainable drug prices in CML and cancer may be causing harm to patients," they wrote.

Novartis, whose best-selling drug Gleevec generated $4.7 billion in revenue last year, counters that the success of the drug justifies its high price.

"Thousands of people are alive today because of the development and introduction of targeted CML therapies," said Novartis spokeswoman Julie Masow. "Today, nine out of ten patients with CML have a normal lifespan and are leading productive lives."

Novartis argues that, in addition, patients are usually not directly responsible for paying for the drugs. That cost burden typically falls to insurance companies. Individual consumers might pay no more than $100 per month. Furthermore, many people without insurance are eligible for free "patient giveaways," Novartis said.

For authors of the Blood paper, these solutions fail to address the broader issue of the high cost of certain drugs.

"These price increases do not reflect the cost of development of drugs or the benefit they provide to the patient," said Dr. Hagop Kantarjian, the paper's lead author and chairman of the leukemia department at the University of Texas' MD Anderson Cancer Center. "They are simply related to the drug companies' wish to increase profits beyond a reasonable range."

Kantarjian said he was inspired to publish the paper by a group of physicians at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center who last year protested against the high price of Zaltrap, a "phenomenally expensive" cancer drug. Following their op-ed in the New York Times, the drug manufacturer lowered the price of the drug by half.

"I'm hoping that this will be the trigger for a national dialogue on cancer drug prices, and the prices of drugs in general," Kantarjian said. "Patients are suffering. And some patients are dying."