Insulin Shakeout: Lilly, Generics, What’s Next?

Insulinbig When I read the other day that Eli Lilly was halting construction of a new insulin plant in Virginia, I didn’t make that much of it.  Another day, another dollar-based business decision, right?  But it seems there are some strong currents running through the insulin market that will have tangible consequences for us folks who live on insulin, indeed.

Is Eli Lilly really distancing itself from its historical covenant with diabetes?  This is the company credited with “transforming a fatal disease into a chronic illness,” remember.  Have a look at journalist and author Jim Hirsch’s eloquent post on Eli Lilly losing the loyalty of one-time faithful customers.  It seems the company has successfully alienated parents of children with Type 1 diabetes, clearly a bad move. Overall, they aren’t seen as caring about patients, apparently; Hirsch notes that Denmark-based Novo Nordisk took the lead on that front, at least until recently.

Lilly is still making insulin, of course. They’re introducing several new insulin pens this year, including the Memoir, “smart insulin pen” with a memory chip, which I wrote about a while back. But they’ve also discontinued Humulin Lente and Humulin UltraLente, which about 66,000 patients relied on, Hirsch notes.  Unlike losing your favorite brand of shampoo, it’s a major life change when your insulin of choice disappears.  Ugh.

Meanwhile, there’s lots of buzz about the delayed introduction of generic insulin. Could bring prices down, of course, but the thought of some no-name brand with no responsible company to call if something goes wrong seems a little scary.  Again, it’s not like switching to economy-brand shampoo.

D-blogger Scott Strumello believes that most Americans are favorable towards generic drugs, however, and that the cost savings are well worth it.  He wrote and posted an extensive 7-page article on competitive jockeying in the insulin market and why we all ought to be shouting a lot louder for generics. Bravo, Scott!

Meanwhile, researchers seem to be inching closer to entirely new sources of insulin.  There’s the group working on saffron plants — implausable but promising.  Yesterday, the company, SemBioSys Genetics in Canada, announced that their plant-derived insulin is shown to be “indistinguishable from human insulin hormone.”

The findings could have massive implications for the insulin market, currently dominated by only three companies – Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk and Sanofi Aventis, recording blockbuster insulin sales of over $7.2bn (€5.6bn) in 2005,” Checkbiotech reports.  Let’s hope this stuff has a major effect on the patient’s bottom line as well as their’s. 

As Jim Hirsch notes, I’d like to close by saying I’m not naïve. I know that each of these company’s top priority is to its shareholders, and patients come second.  They have to sustain sales to stay in business, of course.  It’s just that “each day, you inject it or pump it into your body, on blind faith that it will keep you alive to do the same tomorrow.”  And meanwhile it costs you and arm and a leg, as well!

            *** UPDATE: The folks at Eli Lilly inform me that their CEO has written an Op-Ed piece confirming their “unwavering commitment” to diabetes and the patients who live with it.  Read the article here. ***


9 Responses

  1. Scott
    Scott January 17, 2007 at 12:11 pm | | Reply

    The real issue for Lilly is that insulin remains a critical contributor to the company’s bottom line (less we forget, Humalog is a $1 billion product, and one that needs to be protected). However, in the last decade, Lilly has spent heavily on other theraputic areas, including spending $2.1 billion Icos Corp. last year for total control of the erectile dysfunction partnership.

    Lilly is not accustomed to being an underdog in the insulin market which it dominated for more than 80 years. However, the company now needs to invest heavily to protect that franchise, but its less clear whether they will do so.

  2. Anne
    Anne January 17, 2007 at 1:33 pm | | Reply

    I’ve used Lilly insulin since day 1 and wasn’t aware of bad relationships between the company and patients or parents of patients. I am just grateful that they were innovative enough to bring about a major revolution in diabetes care (in my opininion): insulin analogs. They were the first to do it, and I am grateful. I remember, after taking my first dose back in 1997 or whenever that was, thinking, “Wow, this stuff actually works,” in contrast to Regular insulin, which was a pain.

    I agree that it is expensive and they could probably charge less. On the other hand, it takes a lot of time and $ to get past all of the failed ideas that eventually result in something like Humalog. I just hope they can keep their innovative edge; there seems to be some doubt about that now, I guess.

    My brother worked at Lilly for several years and I had the opportunity to tour their main facility in Indianapolis, and to visit the old building where drugs used to be prepared. I was impressed and felt from my visit that they still emphasize to their employees the human aspect of what they are all doing. (This was the sense that my brother had as a Lilly employee, as well.)

    I don’t doubt that their primary objective is to stay fiscally afloat, and to stay afloat in style. On the other hand, I don’t think they should be demonized as being greedy and careless. (I’m not suggesting that you do this in your posting, but it seems like there are some who do.)

    Maybe the reason that they haven’t been making big appearances lately is because they are trying to cut back on “extraneous” expenses. While I agree that Lilly shold seek feedback from its customers, is it really critical for them to be best friends with parents? We get our best support from family, friends, and our medical team.

  3. Michael Park
    Michael Park January 17, 2007 at 3:53 pm | | Reply

    Unfortunately, I’ve been aware of the changing insulin world for a while. When I first switched to Humalog, I was so impressed with the world of analogues!! After a while, I developed insulin resistance to the point that I thought my days of analogues were permanantly kaputz. Luckily, Novorapid is just ever so slightly different in the amino acids, so it works AOK for me.
    Unfortunately, those are stresses that we shouldn’t have to worry about.. but, alas, we do!

  4. AmyT
    AmyT January 17, 2007 at 4:26 pm | | Reply

    Anne, I ought to have added that my personal experience with Lilly has been nothing but positive. I too have visited their HQ and moving historical museum. I figure they’re instrumental in saving my life, for sure.

    As usual, this post is simply reporting on what I see being discussed in the diabetes community/industry.

    When I read that people like Jeff Hitchcock can’t get the company to answer their calls, that makes me wonder… why isn’t Lilly doing more to plug in to vital patient communities like CWD?

  5. Steve
    Steve January 17, 2007 at 8:15 pm | | Reply

    Lilly might be running scared from the generic movement. Too bad. Also, if you can make the stuff from saffron, doesn’t that essentially relegate us to purchasing product from GNC? I don’t know enough about the insulin universe, admittedly. As a type 2 diabetic, it’s not part of my life yet. I feel sorely lacking, and wish I knew more. Thank you for posting this message – it got my attention and helps focus me on my need to become more informed.

  6. Cecily
    Cecily January 17, 2007 at 9:18 pm | | Reply

    I found all of this information really interesting.
    I’m very new to the diabetes thing (type 1, diagnosed 6 months ago) and even newer to the diabetes blog world. I just wanted to let you know that I’ve learned a LOT and can already relate to so much of what you write about even though a very small amount of time has passed since my diagnosis.

    I look forward to checking this website often!

    Thank you~ Cecily

  7. Anne
    Anne January 18, 2007 at 5:54 pm | | Reply


    I apologize if I came off sounding a little aggressive. I acknowledge that I have a bias in favor of Lilly since they have basically kept me alive since 1988. I am grateful that other companies (albeit not many) have stepped into the insulin market to provide competition and backup!

    I suspect, from my brother’s recent experience at Lilly, that they are really pulling back financially. Maybe these patient outreach opportunities are seen as an easy way to cut back on expenses; in the larger picture, though, it seems like that approach may backfire. If they are confronted with calling and saying that the CWD conference is not in the budget (and perhaps giving out stronger evidence that they are in financial trouble) vs. remaining silent, perhaps they have chosen the latter option.

  8. Florian
    Florian January 19, 2007 at 3:12 pm | | Reply

    There is a company in India called BioCon that makes insulin and has deals with US companies to supply the insulin for development of new products. Check out

  9. Conell
    Conell May 4, 2008 at 7:08 am | | Reply

    I was told that when taking insulin one’s blood alcohol level will rise. Is this true.

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