This content originally appeared on diaTribe. Republished with permission.
This is Part 3 of James S. Hirsch’s exploration of the riveting history of insulin, on the occasion of its 100th birthday.
Part 1: The Discovery
Part 2: Failed Promises, Bold Breakthroughs
Insulin’s Uncertain Future
Image source: Emily Ye, Diabetes Daily
As further refinements in insulin occurred, the insulin narrative should have become even more powerful – that insulin not only saves people, but in reaching new pharmacological heights, it is allowing patients to live healthier, better, and more productive lives. These should be insulin’s glory days – as well as days of unprecedented commercial opportunity. According to the International Diabetes Federation, in 2019, the global population of people with diabetes had increased a staggering 63 percent in just nine years – to 463 million patients.
Insulin sales should be booming, with a new generation of Elizabeth Evans Hughes and Eva Saxls to tell the story. In fact, insulin sales are declining, and insulin has no spokespeople. Reasons vary for these developments, but one fact is undeniable: insulin has lost its halo.
Insulin is still essential for any person with type 1 diabetes, though even with type 1 patients, insulin is sometimes under-prescribed as doctors fear getting sued over a severe hypoglycemic incident. The belief is that patients are responsible for high blood sugars, doctors for low blood sugars.
Where insulin has lost its appeal is with type 2 patients, which has driven the diabetes epidemic in the U.S and abroad. According to the CDC, from 2000 to 2018, America’s diabetes population surged 185 percent, from 12 million to 34.2 million, and an estimated 90 percent to 95 percent of that cohort has type 2. (The global percentage is similar.) These patients have long had options other than insulin – metformin, introduced in 1995, remains the ADA’s recommended first-line agent. But as a progressive disease, type 2 diabetes, in most cases, will eventually require a more intensive glucose-lowering therapy. Nothing achieves that objective better than insulin, but insulin is delayed or spurned entirely by many type 2 patients.
Some concerns are longstanding; namely, that insulin can lead to weight gain because patients now retain their nutrients. Some type 2 patients wrongly associate insulin with personal failure surrounding diet or exercise, so they want to avoid the perceived stigma of insulin. Some people just don’t like injections. Meanwhile, other patients associate insulin with the medication that an ailing patient takes shortly before they die: insulin as a precursor to death. Some clinicians who care for Hispanic patients refer to insulin pens as las plumas to avoid using a word that carries so much baggage.
What’s striking is how dramatically the cultural narrative has changed, from insulin the miracle drug to insulin the medical curse. And where are the commercials, the movies, the documentaries, and the splashy publicity campaigns about the wonders of insulin? They don’t exist.
The greatest impact on insulin use in type 2 diabetes has been the emergence of a dozen new classes of diabetic drugs. These include incretin-based therapies known as GLP-1 agonists and DPP-4 inhibitors (introduced in the 2000s) as well as SGLT-2 inhibitors (introduced in 2014). diaTribe has covered these therapies extensively, and their brands are all over TV: Trulicity, Jardiance, Invokana, and more. They all seem to have funky names, and like insulin, they can all lower blood sugars but – depending on which one is used – some have other potential advantages, such as weight loss. (Some have possible disadvantages as well, including nausea.)
The expectations for these drugs were always high, but what no one predicted was that GLP-1 agonists and SGLT-2 inhibitors have been shown to reduce the risk of both heart and kidney disease – findings that are a boon to type 2 patients, who are at higher risk of these diseases. These findings, however, were completely accidental to the original mission of these therapies.
Insulin, the miracle drug, has been eclipsed by drugs that are even more miraculous!
Consider Eli Lilly, whose Humalog is the market-leading insulin in the United States. In 2020, Humalog sales fell 7 percent, to $2.6 billion, while Trulicity, its GLP-1 agonist, saw its sales increase by 23 percent, to $5 billion.
That’s consistent with the global insulin market. Worldwide insulin sales in 2020 declined by 4 percent, to $19.4 billion, marking the first time since 2012 that global insulin sales fell below $20 billion.
It’s quite stunning. Amid a global diabetes epidemic, and with the purity, stability, and quality of insulin better than ever, insulin sales are falling. (Pricing pressures from insurers and government payers have also taken a revenue toll.) In 2019, Sanofi announced that it was going to discontinue its research into diabetes, even though its Lantus insulin had been a blockbuster for years. More lucrative opportunities now lay elsewhere.
Falling sales may not be the insulin companies’ biggest problem. Public scorn is. Though the insulins kept getting better, the prices kept rising, forcing many patients to ration their supplies, seek cheaper alternatives in Canada or Mexico, or settle for inferior insulins. Some patients have died for lack of insulin. According to a 2019 study from the nonprofit Health Care Cost Institute, the cost of insulin nearly doubled for type 1 patients in the United States between 2012 and 2016 – they paid, on average, $5,705 a year for insulin in 2016, compared to $2,864 in 2012.
Many patients are outraged and have used social media to rally support – one trending hashtag was #makeinsulinaffordable. Patient advocates have traveled to Eli Lilly’s headquarters to protest. In March of this year, nine Congressional Democrats demanded that the Federal Trade Commission investigate insulin price collusion among Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk, and Sanofi, asserting they “are using their stranglehold on the market to drive up costs.” The letter notes that as many as one in four Americans who need insulin cannot afford it, and at least 13 Americans have died in recent years because of insulin rationing.
The criticism has been unsparing. In April 2019, in a hearing for the U.S. House of Representatives on insulin affordability, Democrats and Republicans alike pilloried the insulin executives. At one point, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois) said to them, “I don’t know how you people sleep at night.”
Insulin is hardly the only drug whose price has soared, but as the Washington Post noted last year, insulin is “a natural poster child of pharmaceutical greed.”
In response, the insulin companies have adopted payment assistance programs to help financially strapped consumers. They also blame the middlemen in the system – the PBMs, or the Pharmaceutical Benefit Managers – for high insulin prices, who in turn blame the insulin companies, and everyone blames the insurers, who point the finger at the companies and the PBMs.
Drug pricing in America is so convoluted it’s impossible for any patient to accurately apportion blame, but the history of insulin explains in part why the companies have come under such attack. When Banting made his discovery, he sold the patent to the University of Toronto for $1. He said that insulin was a gift to humankind and should be made available to anyone who needs it. Insulin was always profitable for Eli Lilly and the few other companies who made it, and critics have complained that the companies found ways to protect their patents by making incremental improvements in the drug.
But for years, those complaints were easily dismissed. The companies were revered for their ability to mass produce – and improve – a lifesaving drug that symbolized the pinnacle of scientific discovery while doing so at prices that were affordable.
When prices became unaffordable – and regardless of blame – the companies were seen as betraying the very spirit in which insulin was discovered and produced, and their fall from grace has few equivalents in corporate history.
Is the criticism fair?
Hard to say, but even the companies would acknowledge that they’ve squandered much good will. Personally, I’m the last person to bash the insulin companies – they’ve kept me and members of family alive for quite some time. Collectively, my brother, my son, and I have been taking insulin for 117 years, so I feel more regret than anger: regret that at least one insulin executive didn’t stand up and say loudly and clearly:
“Insulin is a public good. No one who needs it will be without it. And we will make it easy for you.”
Image source: Emily Ye, Diabetes Daily
Whatever that would cost in dollars would be made up for in good will – and such a public commitment would honor the many anonymous men, women, and children, before 1921 and after, who gave their lives to this disease.
The next chapter for insulin? It will almost certainly include continued improvements. Both Eli Lilly and Novo Nordisk are trying to develop a once-a-week basal insulin to replace the current once-a-day options – that would be a major advance is reducing the hassle factor in care. Research also continues on a glucose-sensitive insulin, in which the insulin would only take effect when your blood sugar rises. That would be a breakthrough, but investigators have spent decades trying to make it work.
Since its discovery, the ultimate goal of insulin has been to make it disappear, as that would mean diabetes has been cured. It turns out that insulin therapy may indeed disappear someday, even if no cure is found. Since its discovery, the ultimate goal of insulin has been to make it disappear, as that would mean diabetes has been cured. It turns out that insulin therapy may indeed disappear someday, even if no cure is found.
Stem-cell therapy has long held promise in diabetes – specifically, making insulin-producing beta cells from stem cells, which the body would either tolerate on its own (perhaps by encapsulating the cells) or through immunosuppressant drugs. Progress has been halting but is now evident. Douglas Melton began his research in this area in 1991, and in 2014, he reported that his lab was able to turn human stem cells into functional pancreatic beta cells. The company that Melton created for the effort was acquired by Vertex Pharmaceuticals, and earlier this year, Vertex announced that it had received approval to begin a clinical trial on a “stem-cell derived, fully differentiated pancreatic islet cell therapy” to treat type 1 diabetes. Another company, ViaCyte, also announced this year that it will begin phase 2 of a clinical trial using encapsulated cells in hopes that they will mature into insulin-secreting beta cells.
It may take 10 to 15 years, but leaders in the field are cautiously optimistic that a cell-based therapy will someday provide a better option than insulin.
Diabetes would survive, but the therapy once touted as its cure would be dead.
Because I have a soft spot for happy endings – and because so much of own life has been intertwined with insulin – I have my own vision for insulin’s last hurrah.
A group of researchers in Europe are conducting a clinical trial to prevent type 1 diabetes. Called the Global Platform for the Prevention of Autoimmune Diabetes, the initiative began in 2015, and researchers are testing newborns who are at risk of developing type 1 to see if prevention is possible.
And what treatment are they using?
Like the discovery of insulin itself, this effort is a longshot, but if it works, insulin will have eradicated diabetes – a fitting coda for a medical miracle.
I want to acknowledge the following people who helped me with this article: Dr. Mark Atkinson, Dr. David Harlan, Dr. Irl Hirsch, Dr. David Nathan, Dr. Jay Skyler, and Dr. Bernard Zinman. Some material in this article came from my book, “Cheating Destiny: Living with Diabetes.”
James S. Hirsch, a former reporter for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, is a best-selling author who has written 10 nonfiction books. They include biographies of Willie Mays and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter; an investigation into the Tulsa race riot of 1921; and an examination of our diabetes epidemic. Hirsch has an undergraduate degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a graduate degree from the LBJ School of Public Policy at the University of Texas. He lives in the Boston area with his wife, Sheryl, and they have two children, Amanda and Garrett. Jim has worked as a senior editor and columnist for diaTribe since 2006.