The Inventors of Insulin Sold Their Patent for a Buck. Why Is It So Expensive?

Vial of clear medication and a syringe on a white background

Javier Zayas Photography / Getty Images

On March 22, 1922, the discovery of insulin was announced. Here's what happened after.

That's Frederick Banting, photographed less than an hour before he left on a secret medical mission to Britain on February 22, 1941. He never made it; the plane crashed in Newfoundland.

The Discovery of Insulin

A few years earlier, on March 22, 1922, Banting and his co-discover Charles Best announced the discovery of insulin, described in the Toronto Star as a "diabetes cure." But it wasn't a cure, it is just a replacement for the insulin that diabetics are not producing themselves, and they have to keep taking it forever.

Fortunately, Banting and Best thought it should be available for everyone, so they sold the patent to the University of Toronto for one dollar. According to the Canadian Encyclopaedia: "Arguably one of Canada’s greatest contributions in the area of medical research, the discovery of insulin completely transformed the treatment of diabetes, saving millions of lives worldwide."

Insulin Today

So on this 97th anniversary of its public announcement, why are there headlines like "Americans are dying because they can’t afford their insulin"? Bernie Sanders wondered this too, although he got the dates wrong:

“Today in 1922, researchers at the University of Toronto announced the discovery of insulin. They sold the patent for $1 so it would be available to all,” he wrote. “97 years later, Eli Lilly is charging ~$300 and Americans die because they can’t afford their medication. Outrageous.”

In Canada, that same insulin costs $32. What's happening here?

It turns out that in 1972 the University of Toronto sold Connaught Labs, which made insulin, to the Canada Development Corporation, which sold it to Sanofi, which is now one of the big producers. In 1982 Eli Lilly started selling genetically engineered synthetic insulin, and now, according to Wikipedia, "The vast majority of insulin currently used worldwide is now biosynthetic recombinant 'human' insulin or its analogues."

OK, but even that patent would have expired. Except the companies keep making changes. According to T1International,

Pharmaceutical companies take advantage of loopholes in the U.S. patent system to build thickets of patents around their drugs which will make them last much longer (evergreening). This prevents competition and can keep prices high for decades. Our friends at I-MAK recently showed that Sanofi, the maker of Lantus, is no exception. Sanofi has filed 74 patent applications on Lantus alone, that means Sanofi has created the potential for a competition-free monopoly for 37 years.

So in the USA they can charge whatever they think they can get away with. As Christel Aprigliano, CEO of the Diabetes Patient Advocacy Coalition (DPAC), told Think Progress,

“It’s not sustainable,” Aprigliano told ThinkProgress. “It truly has become a perverted system in which the list price of a drug that is life essential for 8 million Americans just has become unaffordable... [and] the people who are paying the list price are the people who can afford it the least.” Aprigliano said she’s heard time and again of diabetics being forced to choose between a life-saving drug and paying other bills, like rent or buying food.

OK, it is not, as Dr. Brian Goldman notes, your great grandmother's insulin.

Insulin itself has been modified chemically to make versions that work faster or last longer. The delivery system has changed a lot. Instead of needles and syringes, there are insulin pumps, pens and other methods.
Black and white photo of two men and a dog
Toronto Star / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0 

But on March 22 we should salute Frederick Banting, Charles Best and, I suppose, the dog that supplied the pancreatic extract that became the first supplier of insulin that saved millions of lives.

Why is this on TreeHugger? I am still inspired by the fact that they sold it for a buck. Most Fridays I have lunch at an Arts and Letters club he belonged to and pass that photograph of Banting, taken less than an hour before he died, and I always love that wry smile. He is an inspiration.