The biopharmaceutical company’s Swiss division just published computational studies aiming to improve Daraprim, after its former CEO, Martin Shkreli, attempted to justify the scandalous 5000% price hike as a boost for its R&D.

A little over a year ago, Martin Shkreli, founder and then-CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticalshiked the price of a common medication for toxoplasmosis by 5000%. Before he hired an emergency PR firm and asserted that the increased cost would be absorbed by insurers, the ‘Most Hated Man in America’ attempted to dismiss his critics with the justification that the profits would be funneled to R&D. Though Shkreli has since stepped down from his position as CEO, the company may be attempting to follow up on this promise: the Swiss arm of Turing has announced new drug candidates to fight toxoplasmosis.

Toxoplasmosis is a parasitic infection that has infected up to 6B people worldwide. Most only register minor flu-like symptoms, but it can be fatal for people with compromised immune systems, notably HIV/AIDS patients and babies. The current standard of treatment is an enzyme inhibitor branded as Daraprim (pyrimethamine), and this small molecule was the object of the Turing pricing scandal.

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Figure 1. Cat owners are at risk of inhaling the parasite from their pets' litter boxes.

Figure 1. Cat owners are at risk of inhaling the parasite from their pets’ litter boxes.

In an article published in ACS Medicinal Chemistry Letters, a low-impact academic journal reporting applications of chemistry to pharmacology, Turing suggested new small molecules that could serve as more potent and selective than Daraprim. For all intents and purposes, Turing can now claim to be using profits from Daraprim, whose price has been cut by half but remains almost 30 times the original, to improve upon the drug. However, these results are token at best.

Most obviously, they are still a pie in the sky: the ‘discovery’ has not yet proceeded to synthesis or pharmacological screening. More troublingly, the study did not bring anything new to the table regarding potential new therapeutic approaches. It did not expand upon or deviate from the current approach, instead relying upon brute-force trial-and-error computing to come up with molecules that might fit into the binding pocket.

Figure 2. The price increase on Daraprim made it impossible for community pharmacies to stock the drug, so outpatients were forced to go to specialty pharmacies to obtain their medication.

Figure 2. The price increase on Daraprim made it impossible for community pharmacies to stock the drug, so outpatients were forced to go to specialty pharmacies to obtain their medication.

While the new candidates may theoretically have much-improved selectivity for the enzyme to decrease side effects, the other half of their appeal, increased potency, simply means the pill could be smaller. It’s possible that one of these updated versions could replace Daraprim, but given that the current development effort is devoted to refining a therapy that has been around for more than 60 years, it is unlikely to launch the treatment to the blockbuster level.

On the business side, pricing executives are unlikely to pull a fast one as government scrutiny of drug marketing intensifies.  And for his part, Martin Shkreli is preoccupied with heckling Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton.


Featured Image: fotovapl/shutterstock.com
Figure 1: andrewpotter4/shutterstock.com
Figure 2: Tyler Olson/shutterstock.com

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