This time the CEO is seeking a price increase for a drug to treat a disease spread by the 'kissing bug.'

By Kristine Thomason
Updated December 15, 2015
Credit: Getty Images

Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli, who raised the price of the antiparastic drug Daraprim by 5,000% earlier this year, is at it again.

This time Shkreli is pursuing approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to sell the drug benznidazole, used to treat Chagas disease. Although the drug is available in South and Central America (where Chagas is more common), it is not FDA-approved for sale in the U.S. Right now the CDC provides infected patients with free benznidazole on an experimental basis—but it won’t be free for long if Shkreli gets his way.

The New York Times reports that Shrkeli intends to take advantage of a federal program that awards vouchers worth hundreds of millions of dollars; the program is designed to encourage companies to develop drugs for rare or neglected diseases. But instead of developing a novel treatment (which is very expensive) Shkreli plans to simply secure FDA approval for a drug that's already in use in other countries.

This would give his company sole rights to sell benznidazole in the U.S. for a minimum of five years. Shkreli plans to raise the cost to something equitable to breakthrough Hepatitis C drugs, which range from $60,000 to $100,000 for just one course of treatment. To put that number into perspective, benznidazole currently costs $50 to $100 in Latin America for a two-month course.

The CDC estimates there are more than 300,000 cases of Chagas disease in the U.S. It is caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, found in the feces of the triatomine insect, also known as the “kissing bug” since it bites people’s faces.

If left untreated, the disease can be fatal. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 30% of patients infected with the parasite experience life-threatening symptoms like irregular heartbeat and digestive issues due to an enlarged esophagus and colon.

Spiking the price could make it nearly impossible for some to afford treatment for Chagas. This is especially problematic considering the disease hits the poor and people without insurance the hardest.

As Sheba Meymandi, MD, director of a Chagas treatment center at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center explained to the New York Times: “It’s caused a lot of angst in the Chagas community. Everyone’s in an uproar.”