Princeton’s President praises the lifesaving drug but neglects to mention how the University is seeking to block cheaper generic versions.
By Sebastian Jones
Several weeks ago I wrote an article for our sister publication, the Nassau Weekly, about Princeton’s corporate relationships, the potential problems they present and the fact it is extremely difficult for interested students and faculty to figure out what exactly is going on.
One of the examples I highlighted dealt with Alimta, a lifesaving cancer medicine manufactured by pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly under a license from Princeton University, who owns the patent for the drug’s key component. As I noted in the story, Alimta can be rather expensive– up to $11,000 a month– and while some patients are hoping for a cheaper alternative, they will have to wait longer because Eli Lilly and Princeton have filed a series of suits in federal court to prevent the production of a generic version. If these cheaper alternatives enter the market, Princeton and Eli Lilly claim they “will be substantially and irreparably damaged.”
Eli Lilly’s motivations and those of the generic drug companies involved are evident: they out to make a profit. But what is Princeton University, a non-profit institution of higher learning fond of saying it acts in the nation’s service, doing in the midst of the controversial fight over the price and accessibility of pharmaceuticals and the production of generics? Follow the money:
Eli Lilly has told the SEC their arrangement with Princeton ensures the university a “single-digit percentage” cut of the sales of the drug in exchange for exclusive license to produce Alimta. Net sales for the drug topped 1.15 billion in 2008, meaning Princeton scooped up somewhere between roughly $11 and $104 million from their partnership with Eli Lilly. Beyond the licensing agreement, Eli Lilly has given the University $500,000 for an endowed graduate fellowship.
Later in the piece I predicted that when University President Shirley Tilghman addressed my class last week, her speech would likely play down or neglect entirely Princeton’s corporate ties while calling upon graduating seniors to be active and informed citizens, drawing on the civic consciousness that Princeton helped each of us grow, challenging injustice, and so forth and so on. In other words, boilerplate graduation rhetoric mixed with reverential discussion of Princeton’s commitment to service and selflessness—the institutional ideals one reads about in the admissions brochures and that form the backbone of the speeches at opening and closing ceremonies.
Not only did Tilghman deliver that in her June 2nd speech, titled “In Pursuit of Purpose and Meaning”, she also outlined the ways “the University contributes to both social change and economic progress” as follows:
We are justly proud of the many contributions that Princeton faculty have made over the years — from Professors Steve Pacala and Rob Socolow’s “wedges” concept, which demonstrates that it is possible to substantially reduce carbon emissions today through the adoption of multiple existing technologies; to Emeritus Professor of Chemistry Ted Taylor’s development of Alimta, a drug that is now saving and extending lives of cancer patients; to the Center for African American Studies’ Toni Morrison Lecture that each year provides a national forum for a distinguished public figure to address the impact of race in America; to Professors John Ikenberry and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Princeton Project on National Security that laid out a sustainable and effective national security strategy for the United States. These examples, and many, many more that I could name, reflect Princeton’s commitment to being “in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.”
On one hand, Tilghman is correct: there can be no doubt Alimta has saved lives. However, that it could be saving additional lives if it were cheaper and more accessible– something Princeton is actively impeding through its litigation—is also beyond dispute.
If Princeton were a company accountable to shareholders, if it existed purely to generate profit—in other words, if it were Eli Lilly—its need to conduct itself in a socially responsible manner would be up for debate. As a non-profit that claims to be in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations (a particularly ironic set of words when considering the need for generics in the developing world), its decision to actively side with big pharmaceuticals on the issue of generics is puzzling. Perhaps that’s why we only heard half the Alimta story in Tilghman’s speech.
When The Nassau Weekly posts their May 29th issue online, I’ll put up a link to the article. For now, you can read my entire piece, “In Whose Service: Examining Princeton’s Troubling Corporate Ties”, here. Portions of it will be familiar to those who followed WPRB’s coverage of Princeton investments in BAE Systems and Zimbabwe.
(Front page image credit: Joe Shlabotnik)