Drug Companies At Fault for Lack of Generic Insulin

Generic insulin, which could make the lifesaving treatment available to more diabietics, isn’t available because drug companies have acted to keep insulin under patent, according to researchers from Johns Hopkins.

The study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The researchers said that insulin, which is used by 6 million people in the United States, has never been available in a cheaper, generic version because drug companies made, between 1923 and 2014, “incremental changes” that kept insulin a patented drug.

Because of that, the researchers say, many diabetics who need insulin can’t afford of it, and some are hospitalized with serious and even fatal results like kidney failure and diabetic coma.

Authors Jeremy Greene, M.D., Ph.D., and Kevin Riggs, M.D., M.P.H., describe the history of insulin as an example of “evergreening,” in which pharmaceutical companies make a series of improvements to important medications that extend their patents for many decades.

That strategy discourages the manufacture of generic insulin, because the minute changes drug companies make mean that doctors will perceive the generic version as obsolete.

Insulin often costs from 120 to $400 per month without prescription drug insurance, according to a news release from Johns Hopkins.

“Insulin is an inconvenient medicine even for people who can afford it,” says Riggs, a research fellow in general internal medicine and the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins. “When people can’t afford it, they often stop taking it altogether.”

The researchers said that patients with diabetes who are not taking prescribed insulin come to their Baltimore-area clinics complaining of blurred vision, weight loss and intolerable thirst — symptoms of uncontrolled diabetes, which can lead to blindness, kidney failure, gangrene and loss of limbs.

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