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Fri, Oct. 18

Editorial: Profit shouldn’t be the goal with life-saving drugs

In this April 18, 2017 file photo, a woman with Type 2 diabetes prepares to inject herself with insulin at her home in Las Vegas. (John Locher/AP)

In this April 18, 2017 file photo, a woman with Type 2 diabetes prepares to inject herself with insulin at her home in Las Vegas. (John Locher/AP)

With all the rancor in Washington, D.C., these days, it catches your attention when members of Congress reach across the aisle to get something done.

Earlier this month, Democrats Dick Durbin of Illinois and Tina Smith of Minnesota, along with Republican Kevin Cramer of North Dakota introduced a bill in the Senate called the Affordable Insulin Approvals Now Act. The measure is an effort to help lower the cost of the drug, which is a life-saver for millions of Americans.

Why is this necessary? Here’s a little history: Insulin was discovered at the University of Toronto in the early 1920s, according to the Science History Institute, clearing the way for the successful treatment of diabetes and extending the lives of diabetic patients. 

For such an important discovery, surely the four men responsible became millionaires, right? Nope. They believed that insulin should be made as widely available as possible, without any barriers such as cost. Two of them refused to be named on the patent; the other two sold the patent to the university for $1 because they wanted everyone who needed the medication to be able to afford it.

Unfortunately, those men’s wishes have not been followed, especially in this country. 

In a speech on the Senate floor, Durbin blasted the makers of insulin for increases in the drug’s prices, which have jumped more than 600 percent in the U.S. over the past two decades. This country makes up 15 percent of the global insulin market, but it generates nearly half of big pharma’s revenue on the drug. 

According to Durbin’s office, Lantus, a long-acting insulin popular with patients, cost $35 when it was introduced in 2001. However, in the past few years, the price of a vial has risen to $372 in the U.S. In France, the same drug sells for $46; in Canada, it is $67. 

Who does this price-gouging affect? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 30 million Americans – nearly 10 percent of the population -- have diabetes. About 7.5 million of them rely on insulin to manage their blood sugar levels.

They are reacting to the rising costs in ways that should concern all of us. One-quarter of patients with type 1 or 2 diabetes have reported using less insulin than prescribed due to these high costs, according to Yale University researchers. “As clinicians, we have to advocate for change because the status quo is simply cruel and not acceptable,” they wrote in JAMA Internal Medicine.

One reason the price of insulin remains so high is because no generic version of the drug is available in this country. For decades drug companies have made incremental improvements that have kept insulin under patent, and manufacturers cannot offer generic drugs until a patent on a brand-name drug expires.

This brings us back to the Affordable Insulin Approvals Now Act, which has a goal of speeding up the approval process of generic insulin products. Write your senators, Kyrsten Sinema and Martha McSally, demanding that they back this bill. Support for the measure needs to be overwhelming to make sure it catches the attention of the House of Representatives. 

Surely this is an issue all of us can get behind, no matter our political affiliation.

Frederick Banting, a physician and one of the men credited with discovering insulin, refused to put his name on the drug’s patent, citing the Hippocratic Oath. He said it was unethical for a doctor to profit from a discovery that would save lives.

If only we could get drug companies to follow a similar moral compass.

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