Utah nonprofit pharmaceutical company is fixing the market, producing 80 drugs
Oct 23, 2023, 7:49 AM
(Emily Ashcraft, KSL.com)
SALT LAKE CITY — Although running a company with a goal to disrupt the pharmaceutical industry isn’t making him any money, Dan Liljenquist said he is having fun.
“I feel like I’m paid really well, even though none of it’s in my bank account,” he said.
Liljenquist is the volunteer board chairman for Civica Rx, a Lehi company he founded with a goal of making “essential medicines available and affordable.”
At a Healthy Dialogues event hosted by Intermountain Health in Salt Lake City Thursday, the former Utah senator who ran for U.S. senate in 2012 said the good he is able to do with the company “is like being in the Legislature, but without having to run for office.”
The need for insulin
Matt Anderson, who works with community relationships at Intermountain Health, said when he was starting seventh grade, his doctor sat and cried with him and his mom as he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.
Anderson said he’s been able to live his best life, but the price of insulin has caused hardship, struggles and stress for him and his family. At one point, it cost him $1,200 each month to have the insulin that was saving his life.
His dad went into early medical retirement when the price of insulin was going up, and his parents needed to take money from their retirement funds to pay for his insulin. Anderson said he was a victim of insulin rationing and was constantly sick through college.
But he said there is hope. Now, he pays just $10 for insulin each month.
Liljenquist, who also has first-hand experience with the need for insulin, said, “Insulin belongs to the world.”
Liljenquist’s parents adopted twin boys with Type 1 diabetes. As a child, he would listen at night to make sure his brothers were not in hypoglycemic shock.
He said he remembers when insulin came out at $25, his dad who was a doctor for people with diabetes said the price would come down.
“Everybody was waiting for the price to come down, but instead of the price coming down … every year for 20 years, the price went up,” he said.
Liljenquist said this was not because manufacturing was expensive, but because people in the industry wanted higher rebates and weren’t thinking about the people.
“It’s essentially a massive tax to have diabetes,” he said.
Civica Rx, Liljenquist said, hopes to provide insulin at the lowest price tag possible but isn’t quite there yet. It plans to seek FDA approval of its insulin product in early 2025 and bring it to consumers within about 10 months of that, he said its facility can produce much of the insulin needed in the U.S.
Fixing broken drug markets
Five years into the business, Liljenquist said Civica Rx has about one-third of the hospitals in the U.S. working with it and some governments.
There are often 200 medications on the drug shortage list — a problem that has a negative effect on patients. Civica Rx is already manufacturing almost 80 drugs five years into the business to address this, and Liljenquist said it is only getting started.
He said the company only enters the broken drug markets, not ones that are running well.
Most of the medications the company is making at this point are only available to hospitals, but one medication is available to consumers — a drug to treat metastatic prostate cancer. Liljenquist said Civica Rx took the price from $3,400 to $171.
He hopes to produce drugs for cancer patients because large purchasing companies chased manufacturing for many of them overseas looking for the best price. Now, he said, prices are so low and quality is being called into question. The most urgent, he said, is pediatric cancer drugs that Liljenquist wants to produce in their next facility.
Liljenquist also expressed concerns that all of the world’s penicillin and about 80% of its antibiotics are being produced in China, he hopes to bring more manufacturing to the U.S.
He is also the chief strategy officer for Intermountain Health, and he said he does not think Civica Rx could have been launched out of any organization other than Intermountain.
Artificial intelligence improving access to health advice
Not all of Liljenquist’s aspirations lie within pharmaceuticals; he also talked about how artificial intelligence will revolutionize the health care industry. For health care, he said, “AI is like the printing press.”
Just like the printing press democratized the Bible, making it accessible to anyone, he said AI will allow everyone to access medical advice.
He said he helped launch a company called Graphite Health with someone in New Mexico who reached out to him about Civica Rx, and an idea to do a similar thing with health care data, which can be hard for many people to access due to cost.
Liljenquist said AI brings the opportunity to map health conditions and provide good advice through chatbots. He said chatbots make information up, which can be catastrophic in health care, but clinically knowledgeable AI bots could allow anyone around the world to get good health care advice from wherever they are.
“We’re confident we can make AI safe for use in clinical settings, and frankly in non-clinical settings,” he said.