Fact, Opinion and Annoyance

Defining greed to suit your purpose
February 17, 2012, 7:09 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Once again, I find myself unable to directly respond to an interesting FB thread (it’s getting kind of annoying, really). 🙂

The subject this time: drug companies.  More specifically, greedy drug companies who charge too much for their products solely to make a profit.  It’s something of a personal thing to me, as my first job out of college was for a start-up company called VIRxSYS.  They were just getting into business when I started; I even helped order the laboratory equipment.  They were developing a gene therapy treatment for HIV infection.  This would be particularly beneficial for those HIV patients who could no longer use retroviral drug therapy for various reasons but it was more invasive.  The therapy involved removing bone marrow, growing it in culture, infecting it with a virus designed to combat/protect from HIV, and returning it to the patient.  The virus itself was derived from HIV and called a lentiviral vector.  And while the company had plenty of ideas for other treatments that could be developed using this method (including sickle cell anemia and some blood cancers), they started with HIV because they first had to prove that gene therapy developed from HIV could be safe and wouldn’t infect patients with HIV.

I worked in two departments during my time there.  First in research, helping to design the virus with the optimal ability to attack HIV in a cell culture environment.  Then I moved into production, where we focused on maximizing the efficiency of the process to produce the virus on a large scale.  Other research areas included the culturing of bone marrow cells, with our scientists developing some new culture methods that greatly improved the life span of the cell cultures – essential to a successful treatment.

How was all of this funded?  How did the company pay it’s employees and their benefits, pay for supplies, rent, electricity, and heat?  Greedy venture capitalists.  The founders of the company went around and gave presentations about their therapy, showing what they had already accomplished and what they believed their therapy could do.  And these evil business people who could have been investing in iPods or solar panels bought stock options in the company.  Why?  HIV, while a large political cause (and certainly devastating to those infected and effected by it), is not as epidemic as cancer or heart disease.  Add to that the fact that the company was developing a brand new technology that the FDA was looking at pretty skeptically and again you have to ask – why?  The company raised $8 million to get started – people gave them $8 million that they might never get back, much less ever make a profit from.

I can’t claim to know the motivations of the investors.  Perhaps HIV research was a particular passion, perhaps they just thought a greater risk could lead to a greater reward.  I was happy to have a job – a job I (mostly) enjoyed and was paid a reasonable amount to do.  I was proud to be doing cutting edge research on a devastating disease: it was what I had dreamed of doing since my Senior year of high school.  VIRxSYS was pretty good to it’s employees; we also received stock options as part of our compensation package, options that could be worth quite a bit if we succeeded.

I left almost 11 years ago when we moved closer to family.  I purchased the stock options that had been set aside for me and I waited.  What has happened in the meantime?  The company has spent over 10 years in FDA trials for it’s first product to treat HIV infection.  Stage I safety trials showed that the lentiviral vector was safe.  Stage II showed that the treatment worked.  Stage III (when they get there) will treat more patients to ensure that the treatment is effective enough in the eyes of the FDA.

VIRxSYS has also raised more money – they have now raised over $20 million (I would say it’s probably closer to $30 million) through capital investors to fund the clinical trials and continue research and development (including paying employee salaries and benefits).  Someday, when the therapy is finally approved, the company will have to decide what to charge patients for their treatments.  Whatever they decide, it will be too much for some people.  There will be cries of GREED and PROFITS OVER PEOPLE.  When the company turns it’s first profit, there will be no remembrance of 15-20 years of investment without return, there will only be complaints of “people making money off of the back of poor AIDS victims.”

No gratitude for a group of people who put their blood, sweat, and tears into advancing science and medicine, only utopian fantasies that it should immediately be “accessible to all”.   To offer the treatment at what is deemed a “reasonable” cost would simply result in VIRxSYS closing it’s doors because it went out of business.  No more research, no more treatments.  Yes, I suppose if the employees worked for no pay, the electric company donated the power (maybe their employees could work for free as well), and the lab supply companies would just give away the mountains of sterile plastic necessary to produce the treatment (maybe all the salespeople and factory workers could just volunteer their time – do you see a trend here?) then VIRxSYS could give away it’s product at very low cost (you still have to pay property taxes on your production facilities, you know).  Of course, the hospital workers administering the treatment must also forgo payment if we’re really going to make it affordable. . .

In the land of reality, the treatment will most likely be expensive when it first comes to market – the company has a lot of red ink to make up.  In time, as with all successful technologies, the cost will come down as the capital investment is recovered.  In the meantime, yes there will be people who cannot afford the treatment (it seems to me this is where HIV/AIDS charities and foundations could be useful, rather than just paying their CEOs six figures to oversee advertising campaigns for condoms.)  Of course, there are people today who can’t even get access to the treatment because of FDA hurdles and nobody seems to feel too bad for them, but that’s a topic for another post.

In the end, I don’t much care if the investors at VIRxSYS had a burning passion for HIV treatment, or were simply trying to get the most bang for their buck.  I also don’t care if the employees are committed to a lifetime of lentiviral vector development, or if they are doing their job and taking home a check until a better opportunity comes up.  I DO care that because of what all these people did, there will (hopefully) be a new treatment for HIV on the market soon and a whole new medical technology to utilize.    If all these people can be defined as greedy for their contributions, then I say BRING ON THE GREED.

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Jonah I was one of the first who participated as this company’s “monkey” and was also the one who failed the VRX496 clinical trial miserably. From day one I never believed the company’s was doing something altruistic, but at the time did believe there was a chance for this product to work something when others didn’t believe. For what it’s worth, they did prove that HIV could safely be used as a vector in gene therapy and from what I read now, children have been cured of blindness and leukemia patients with no options have lived longer as a result of that research. As for a treatment ever reaching marketing without high cost – look no further than Gilead’s Sovaldi $1000/pill, treatment minimum of 89 pills and there within lies your answer. I found your article because I am ready to dive in again, this full tilt with a dual combo treatment involving a chemo drug and modified hematopoietic progenitor/stem cell transplant and need to know if I was ever a previous recipient of any gene transfer product – I was looking for VirXsys to contact the clinical investigator but suppose that isn’t going to happen. You were very wise in your statement regarding “a new treatment on the market”, because it’s all about treatments – the last cure discovered and that was for Polio, probably the last we’ll see as long greed guides us.

Comment by R James

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