But here’s the important point. Boyer and Cohen were university researchers – at University of California/San Francisco and Stanford, respectively – and university-based research is funded largely by the federal government through the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, among other entities. Boyer and Cohen did their path-breaking research using a grant from the NIH.
In other words, the very technology that makes Humalog possible, and every other product manufactured through genetic engineering, was paid for by you, and not just if you were paying taxes back in 1973. The same could be said of almost every drug for which Big Pharma is gouging patients. The basic research, plus the FDA trials and approvals, have been publicly funded while the huge profits that have resulted have been entirely private. Welcome to the American free-enterprise system.
Drug companies continue to insist they need to extort patients because that money pays for vital research for new therapies. But that isn’t really true. Most of the major drug companies spend more on sales and marketing than they do on research. Johnson & Johnson spends twice as much, according to figures from 2015.
Would Eli Lilly, the maker of Humilog, have done that research to invent recombinant DNA technology in its own labs? Probably not. That kind of foundational research often doesn’t yield marketable products right away. Certainly not fast enough to satisfy the quarterly earnings demands of Lilly’s shareholders.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a system where basic research is funded by the federal government, which then spurs the development of new products. In fact, in 1980 Congress passed the Bayh-Dole Act to facilitate exactly this kind of transfer. Nobody, however, anticipated that Big Pharma would get so big and squeeze patients so tightly.
So unless Congress acts to rein in these prices, we will all keep paying for our prescriptions twice over.
Steve Conn is a professor of history at Miami University.