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League of Legends team owner embroiled in drug price hike controversy

UPDATE: Company climbs down on 5500% price increase.

UPDATE 23/9/15 8:25AM Turing Pharmaceuticals has announced that it will scale back its pricing plans for Daraprim to ensure it remains affordable.

As reported by The Guardian this morning, CEO Martin Shrekli explained the company's new position to ABC World News Tonight:

“We've agreed to lower the price of Daraprim to a point that is more affordable and is able to allow the company to make a profit, but a very small profit, and we think these changes will be welcome.”

The new reduced price of the drug has yet to be confirmed, however.

ORIGINAL STORY 22/9/15 10:23AM A League of Legends eSports team owner has found himself mired in controversy after acquiring the rights to a drug used to treat bacterial infections for more than 60 years.

LoL fan Martin "Cerebral" Shkreli, an ex-hedge fund manager turned pharmaceutical CEO, created the competitive team Odyssey earlier this year.

The team was merged with another, Team Imagine, soon after. Imagine has achieved some success since the merger, reaching the semi-finals of this year's NACS Summer Playoffs.

While the team's results have been solid enough, Shkreli has gained infamy for his role as CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals. Within a short period of acquiring the rights to Daraprim, a decades-old drug used to treat diseases such as malaria and toxoplasmosis, the price of the tablet was quickly increased from $13.50 to $750.

The response to the price increase was predictable enough, with reaction pieces from the likes of the New York Times and Forbes. More vocal criticism was found on social media platforms, and some have even asked if developer Riot should step in and investigate whether Shrekli should be considered fit to control a League of Legends team.

Riot has extensive rules governing the ethical behaviour of team owners and members who participate in official tournaments. eSports specialist site eSportsObserver notes the following section of the game's official rules for the 2015 Season.

Riot's code of conduct contains ethical behaviour stipulations, and some in the community have asked for the developer to step in.

Shkreli himself appeared on Bloomberg yesterday evening to discuss the price increase. During the interview, he sought to justify the increased cost of the medicine, citing amongst other factors the need to increase profits in order to develop alternative treatments.

"The cost of production is not the only cost," he explained when it was put to him that the pills cost less than a dollar to produce. "You have distribution costs, you have FDA costs - not just the pill itself and the ingredients but also the people who make the pill and make sure it's made to specification. Those costs have increased dramatically over the years."

Challenged on whether or not these costs had increased by the same 5500 per cent increase the company had imposed on Daraprim, he responded: "No, but this drug was doing $5m in revenue [before the acquisition], and I don't think you could find a drug company on this planet that can make $5m of revenue. Most costs are higher than that."

Shkreli also claims that those who are truly incapable of paying for the treatment will not find themselves shut off from receiving the benefits of it, and has pledged that around half of the pills produced would be provided without charge:

"We will never deny someone treatment for their inability to pay," he says. "Even if we're having a disagreement with the insurer, we'll send them the drug for free in the interim until we've resolved that with the insurer."

A spokesperson for the HIV Medicine Association Judith Aberg disputes these claims, however, and suggested to USA Today that even patients with insurance could still find themselves having to pay around $150 per tablet from their own funds, due to a common requirement to contribute 20 per cent of the costs related to speciality drugs.

Shkreli claims the price hike is a necessary step towards improving treatments in the long term.

"We're spending tens of millions of dollars on making a better version of Daraprim that is more effective and less toxic," continued Shkreli. "These patients deserve a drug company that is turning a fair profit and is developing a drug that is better for them. They don't deserve a drug that's 70 years old - they deserve a modern medicine that can cure toxoplasmosis quickly.

"We know there is a better way to treat this disease, and we're developing three or four different drugs for toxoplasmosis. No one has cared about this illness for a long time - from the pharmaceutical perspective - if ever. It's a terrible thing if you suffer from this disease. You have a new ally.

"Drug development is very expensive, it can cost a billion dollars. It's only fair that we make a profit and we take that money, and we put [the results] back into the patient's hands. I don't advocate for companies that raise prices and don't do any research - and by the way, there are dozens of those."

Even if Shkreli's comments prove capable of dampening the storm Turing Pharmaceuticals currently finds itself in, the controversy surrounding the increased price of Daraprim has now reached as far as Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, who has pledged to investigate what she considers to be "price gouging in the drugs market".

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John Bedford avatar

John Bedford


John is a freelance writer based in West Sussex.