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The chaotic industry behind the insulin I need to live



In the winter of 2005, I was so severely underweight and starved of energy that I went to great lengths to supply my body with some sugar source. It included chugging off a brilliant cocktail of Skittles dissolved in warm water. My sisters thought it was rough. When I sipped my drink we saw Law & Order: SVU on television, but my vision was so blurry that I could barely see what characters were. Their voices helped. Later that night, I woke up in my bed of simultaneously charley horses in each of my legs. My leg muscles were so composed that my feet twisted against my face, something you only see in exorcism scenes from horror movies. And just as in The Exorcist I wet myself. This was not the first time in the past week that everything had happened. It was the fourth one.

Something was really wrong with me.

The next day, my pediatrician pricked his finger and applied a small drop of blood to her hospital-grade glucometer, a unit that measures how much sugar goes through my veins. The display showed 896. I asked her what it would read. "A hundred," she answered after a long pause. "You have type 1

diabetes." I was told I was hours away from coma. My father rushed me to the hospital.

If this had happened a century before, it would have been a death sentence. But today it is possible to live with type 1 diabetes thanks to one thing: insulin. My body did not produce enough hormone, which helps convert sugar into energy, which meant I needed help from artificially produced insulin. Just weeks after my 15th birthday, I started a daily treatment with three to four insulin injections in combination with up to 10 fingerprints per day to monitor my blood sugar.

Fifteen years later, diabetes management has improved beyond my wildest dreams. Syringes have been replaced with insulin pumps and fingerprints have been replaced with sensors embedded under the skin. But my insulin? It has pretty much remained the same. And it's good – except that the price of the same insulin has almost tripled since I started using it.


Price of insulin from 2002 to 2013.
Data: JAMA [19659008] There are a lot of clues and reasons why – from lack of competition to fuzzy legal barriers to the approval of the next generation of drugs – but all these reasons have led to almost half of the world's diabetics without proper access to the drug. When that happens, diabetics are forced to ration the insulin and some even try to produce insulin themselves.

In honor of National Diabetes Month, Verge Science's latest video looks at the issues surrounding insulin and what may be in store for the drug – and for people like me who trust it every day – in the coming years.


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