Insulin Maker Eli Lilly Finally Caps The Drug’s Cost
In 1923, drug manufacturer Eli Lilly became the first company to commercialize insulin. Since then, its cost has skyrocketed. But this week, the company announced that it is capping the cost of insulin at $35. This comes as a huge relief to many Americans, since insulin has become the face of pharmaceutical price gouging. Over the last 20 years, the price of insulin has grown by six times, making this essential, life-saving drug unaffordable to many who need it.
Purbita Saha, deputy editor at Popular Science, joins Ira to talk about this announcement and other science news of the week. They chat about a new at-home test for COVID-19 and the flu, how the bird flu outbreak is faring, what we learned from NASA’s DART mission, and why scientists are growing a mushroom computer.
Purbita Saha is Senior Deputy Editor at Popular Science in New York, New York.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, why the discovery of Antarctic Explorer Ernest Shackleton’s ship is worrisome and our picks for must-see science-based Oscar nominees. But first, US drug manufacturer Eli Lilly is capping the cost of insulin at $35. This comes as a huge relief to many Americans since insulin has become the face of pharma price gouging. Over the last decade, its price has grown by six times, making this essential lifesaving drug unaffordable to many who need it. Here with more details and other science news of the week, including a mushroom computer, is Purbita Saha, deputy editor at Popular Science, based in New York. Welcome back to Science Friday.
PURBITA SAHA: Hi, everyone. Happy Friday.
IRA FLATOW: Happy Friday to you. All right, Purbita, let’s get right into this. How much will the price drop by?
PURBITA SAHA: Yeah, this is important news for millions of diabetes patients. So Eli Lilly just announced that for some varieties of the insulin it makes, there will be a 70% price drop. So we’re looking at a $35 out of pocket cost for certain forms of insulin.
IRA FLATOW: And we’re talking about the kind that’s in the vial, and you use the syringe to draw it out?
PURBITA SAHA: So far, Eli Lilly has not announced a price drop on insulin pens just yet, but for the generic and generic varieties, starting May 1, there will be a big discount.
IRA FLATOW: And while this is happening, the new price of insulin is still more expensive than other countries, correct?
PURBITA SAHA: Yes, this has been an issue in the US for a while. Funny enough, we’re coming up on the 100-year anniversary of insulin being patented. But because there are only three companies really that are producing insulin in the US, they kind of run the prices.
IRA FLATOW: And I know a while back, Congress authorized a $35 per month cap, but that turned out to only apply for seniors on Medicare. So this will help more people.
PURBITA SAHA: Yes, there are 7 to 8 million people in the US who require insulin on a day-to-day basis. And in the past year, there have been studies that have showed that almost 16% of those insulin users have had to ration it because the prices are so high. I mean, insulin is not very expensive to make, so we shouldn’t have to be paying so much for this life saving drug. Then, if the companies actually lower the prices, then more and more people will have accessibility. And yeah, they don’t have to go without a drug that they need to survive.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to some other interesting health news, and I’m talking about the FDA approving an at-home test that will test for both COVID and the flu. It sounds pretty helpful. Tell us about that.
PURBITA SAHA: Yeah, it’s a very simple test, not too different from the at-home COVID test we’ve been using for the past year or two. So it’s another nasal swab, so, fun for our nasal passages. It sort of works in the same way in that it detects RNA both from the coronavirus and from influenza A and B, which are the two major strains that we’ve been seeing recently.
IRA FLATOW: Is this a government giveaway, like the original COVID test kits, or are we going to have to buy this one?
PURBITA SAHA: Unfortunately, not going to be for free, and it’s not available at pharmacies just yet. So the FDA has authorized it, which means it can be mass produced. But there will probably be a slight lag. So we’re not sure when we’ll be seeing it for sale just yet in the US. Canada already has it. And for there, it goes for $70 a box.
IRA FLATOW: Wow.
PURBITA SAHA: But hopefully by the time the next flu and COVID season rolls around next winter, we will be able to access it.
IRA FLATOW: One can hope. Speaking of contagious diseases, if you’re wondering why you need a second mortgage to buy a dozen eggs, it’s because the avian flu is roaring on, right? How bad is the outbreak among birds?
PURBITA SAHA: Yeah, I don’t think a lot of people know how much of the country has been affected by avian flu in the past year beyond the price of eggs and the price of chicken meat. The avian flu outbreak has been going on for a year now. The first cases were seen in North America last February. And since then, 49 states in 921 counties in the US have been hit. So that is 29% of the country just in the past year.
IRA FLATOW: Wow, wow. I’m sure the question on everyone’s mind is, can I get it from these birds? Have there been cases of people catching it?
PURBITA SAHA: So experts have been tightly monitoring any avian flu cases in wild birds, domestic birds. And they are seeing spillover in mammals and really weird varieties of mammals. So we’re seeing grizzly bears, foxes, minks, and even marine mammals like seals and one case of a bottlenose dolphin. So there is some transmission happening between waterfowl and other animals. Luckily, there have not been many humans affected, unlike the outbreak in 2014 and 2015. So there’s the idea that it’s not as dangerous or transmissible among humans.
There was one case of a man in Colorado who was in a prison and working amongst poultry. He did recover luckily. And there was a 11-year-old child who died of avian flu in Cambodia last week. But she had a much different strain, but it’s not the same strain that’s spreading here in North America. And it’s been endemic to her local village for quite some time now. So we don’t need to worry about this just yet in humans. But it’s important for us to take precautions. So if you have a chicken flock, if you have a duck flock, use some of the advice that the USDA gives in terms of protecting yourself and your family. If you see a sick bird out there, don’t handle it yourself. Call an expert.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, good advice. OK, let’s move on to some galactic news. If you remember back in September, NASA crashed a spacecraft into an asteroid to see if they could redirect its course. And the data has been trickling in. Purbita, what have we learned in those months?
PURBITA SAHA: Honestly, DART has been one of the most exciting space moments in the past year for me, which is to say a lot because it’s been an exciting year in space. And the excitement keeps coming. So this week, we had five new studies looking at the results from the DART mission, which went down in September. And basically, it was a huge success, like way more of a success than the astronomers behind the mission could have even guessed.
IRA FLATOW: Really?
PURBITA SAHA: So, in total, the collision between the spacecraft and the asteroid caused the asteroid to slow down by an estimated 30 minutes in its orbit, which is a lot slower than we expected.
IRA FLATOW: And I understand that one study looked at the crash itself, and the rocks flying around and such, and there was something surprising there going on.
PURBITA SAHA: Yeah, so I have this image seared into my brain from watching the collision in real-time, DART just getting closer and closer to this rocky asteroid until it just gives it this slight nudge. But that slight nudge had a lot of power, and it shook off all this rubble from the asteroid’s face, which astronomers call ejecta. And what the study found is that the ejecta itself had a lot of kinetic energy captured in it. And when it came off of the asteroid, it transferred that energy to the asteroid, slowing it down even further. So it looks like the DART spacecraft got a huge assist from the asteroid, which sort of led to its own downfall.
IRA FLATOW: That’s cool. So hopefully, if an asteroid comes barreling towards the Earth, it sounds like we might be pretty well prepared to redirect it.
PURBITA SAHA: We might be, yes.
IRA FLATOW: We might be.
PURBITA SAHA: It’s important to note that Dimorphos, the asteroid we hit, was 7 million miles away from Earth. But if a giant space rock was coming straight at us, if we had enough time to plan ahead and enough time to build a much bigger spacecraft than DART, we could save ourselves. These analyses show that planning is key here and planning out years and months ahead.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, give us enough time. Coming back down to Earth now, there’s news on the computer front, and I find this to be really cool. It’s not a regular old computer. It’s a mushroom computer. I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around a mushroom computer because I took a look at what it looks like. Well, you describe it.
PURBITA SAHA: Yeah, you might not have heard this story yet. And I’m sorry if it gives you nightmares. But my colleague at Pop Sci, Charlotte Hu, recently interviewed a computer scientist at the University of West of England. So what he does is he actually hooks up mushrooms to electrodes to understand if we can program them to send certain communication messages. And he’s also incorporating them into motherboards and computer chips. So you’re actually talking about a lab that grows oyster mushrooms on top of motherboards, which is really neat.
IRA FLATOW: And if you saw “The Last of Us” TV series and picture that growing on top of a motherboard, that’s what it looks like. Why fungal networks? What’s the serious part about this?
PURBITA SAHA: So we know that mushrooms are extremely powerful communicators. They produce these networks with their mycelium, their root structures, that have been lovingly called the “wood wide web.” And they don’t just incorporate other mushrooms in these networks. They incorporate all the organisms around them, including bacteria, what’s living in the soil, the trees above them, and it is a very powerful network. We don’t exactly know what they’re communicating. But what we know is that it truly sustains entire natural systems and can have a positive symbiotic benefit on any creatures living around the mushrooms. So adapting this to computers, we can say that maybe that will help humans as well.
IRA FLATOW: Can we understand what mushroom computers might do that regular ones cannot?
PURBITA SAHA: So what the lab has done is it uses electrodes to stimulate the mushrooms and produce different responses. So, essentially, the mushrooms could take the place of transistors and other parts in a computer that relay messages and relay electrical connections. It’s kind of like how our neurons work with each other. When they send a signal between them, they create both a communication and they create memory. And memory is really important to computers as well.
So if we can use mushrooms or other biological systems– this is being tested in a lot of different things– kombucha, slime molds, even human organelles– we can create these bio computers that are just way more efficient and powerful than the computers we have. And this is a constant pursuit for humans, to create the best possible computer that we can.
IRA FLATOW: Purbita, thank you for bringing us such interesting topics this week.
PURBITA SAHA: Yeah, that was so fun to talk about. Thank you, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: Purbita Saha, deputy editor at Popular Science.