Politics, Pricing

A US senator calls out a little biotech for price gouging. But will it change anything?

A little known biotech called Strongbridge Biopharma has attracted the attention of a prominent US senator who would like to make the company the latest poster child for price gouging in the pharma world.

Claire McCaskill

Earlier this week the Washington Post published a report which detailed how Strongbridge obtained an old and once cheap drug that had nabbed an FDA approval for a rare disease, and jacked a six-figure price for patients. And Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill says she wants to do something to stop this — and prevent others from following what has become a well worn path.

Sixteen years ago, the Post reported, you could buy 100 pills of Daranide for $50 and use it to treat glaucoma. It also became popular among a small group of patients suffering from periodic paralysis. And when Merck dropped the drug, those rare disease patients began to source the treatment from overseas for a few hundred dollars a month.

Taro then got the drug rights from Merck in 2008 — inspired by the son of the chairman, who suffered from periodic paralysis — but then was acquired by Sun. The rare disease approval came through in 2015, the name changed to Keveyis and the price went to $13,650 for 100 pills. Then Strongbridge nabbed the 50-year-old drug and drove the price to $15,001 for 100 pills.

The cost for treating a patient with the drug: $109,500 to $219,000 a year, depending on the dose.

The strategy is similar to what Marathon did when it bagged rights to a cheap European steroid and then won an FDA approval to sell it for Duchenne muscular dystrophy after dusting off some old data from a long forgotten study. In the subsequent controversy that erupted when they announced a price of $89,000 a year, Marathon sold the drug to PTC Therapeutics.

Martin Shkreli, now in prison awaiting sentencing on a fraud conviction, still draws criticism for his move to buy an old and closely controlled therapy and then simply hiked the price more than 5,000%.

“Time and again we’ve seen pharmaceutical companies acquire decades old prescription drugs and gouge consumers—and it’s time we explored every possible way to prevent this practice,” McCaskill said in a statement.

McCaskill, though, isn’t the only politician to condemn such price spikes. But as PTC, Turing and others have shown, even the sharpest criticism in Washington DC can do little to rein in a drug’s price, when the law gives manufacturers free rein to set whatever price they please.

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Research Scientist - Immunology
Recursion Pharmaceuticals Salt Lake City, UT
Director of Operations
Atlas Venture Cambridge, MA

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