There have been many controversies about substantial and sudden jumps in pharmaceutical prices, the most memorable/infamous surrounding Martin Shkreli, the [widely despised and thoroughly unrepentant] former CEO of the drug company Turing, and the 5000% increase in the price of a drug used by many AIDS patients. Similar questions of impropriety have been raised by the practices of Valeant Pharmaceuticals, which has become known for the practice of bypassing research and development by buying up smaller companies and then jacking up the prices of their existing drugs.
The newest pharma pricing outrage involves the Epipen emergency allergy device, and the CEO antihero of the moment is Heather Bresch of Mylan. “Mylan has raised the list price of EpiPens more than 450 percent since 2004, after adjusting for inflation, according to Elsevier’s Gold Standard Drug Database. A pack of two EpiPens cost about $100 in today’s dollars in 2004, but the list price now tops $600.” (STAT news). The controversy now includes inquiries from the Senate about Mylan’s drug pricing, descriptions of how Mylan prevented Teva from manufacturing a generic version, frustrations with coupon and discount programs, and questions about the validity of Bresch’s MBA and the role of her being the daughter of a US Senator. Bresch’s statement that “No one’s more frustrated than me” (about the price increase) drew widespread ire, particularly from parents of children with severe allergies.
Josh Freeman of the blog Medicine and Social Justice clearly explains how these events are a symptom of the larger problems of health care in the US, which driven by commerce rather than health. The Wall Street Journal also agrees that Epipen pricing is a byproduct of larger systematic forces. Shkreli has even piped in, voicing his support for Mylan (though one has to wonder how much anyone wants his “help” these days). At least some relief from the stress of the situation may be possible, by playing the satire game “Epipen Tycoon.”
Another embattled (female) biotech CEO has also been in the news: Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos, who was once hailed as a visionary, and later banned from lab operations for two years by US regulators. Theranos has recently announced its intent to appeal the sanctions.
And finally, battles over who really invented CRISPR bring the question of gender more explicitly into view. The latest grinding of the gears in the machinations of science, law, and commerce involve a patent dispute over CRISPR and its broader echo in the social world. On one side of the fight, the widely recognized pioneers Jennifer Doudna at UCLA and Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Helmholtz Center for Infection Research in Germany. On the other, Eric Lander of MIT and Harvard’s Broad Institute, who wrote a piece in Cell featuring the Broad Institute’s Feng Zhang as the main protagonist. The response to this article was far from positive: Jesebel reported on: “How One Man Tried to Write Women Out of CRISPR,” and STAT news described “Why Eric Lander morphed from science god to punching bag.” As it progresses, this ongoing drama promises to become an excellent case study of how science is indeed a human endeavor.
Additional related topics and resources:
- Sovaldi/Hepatitis C:” The True Cost of an Expensive Medication” [The Atlantic]
- “The Lesson of EpiPens: Why Drug Prices Spike, Again and Again” [NYT], and “Big Pharma’s dirty secret: EpiPen was developed entirely with taxpayer money” [U.S. Uncut]
- “The unsung heroes of CRISPR” [Nature news], and even more on CRISPR and its history and future from The New Yorker and National Geographic.
And unrelated recent topics of interest:
- “U.N. Admits Role In Haiti Cholera Outbreak That Has Killed Thousands” [NPR]
- On the fallibility of fMRI:
- “After another stumble, is fMRI brain scanning learning from its mistakes?” [STAT] (And the related article in PNAS: Cluster failure: “Why fMRI inferences for spatial extent have inflated false-positive rates“)
- “Do You Believe in God, or Is That a Software Glitch?” [NYT]
- Some additional recent items of interest from the New York Times:
- A new series about people living with disabilities. The first piece is something I plan to add to any future undergraduate medical anthropology course syllabus: “Becoming Disabled” by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson.
- “Black Health Matters” (Unfortunately, this appeared in the styles section. It should have been in a more visible location.)
- A discussion of current events that gets at important questions of corporeal vulnerability and intersectionality: “Rape, Race and the Jogger“