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Biopharma aims to take on Trump price criticism with image makeover

With President Donald Trump showing no signs of backing down on his promise to rein in drug prices, the lobbying group representing brand-name manufacturers is fighting back with a new multimillion-dollar ad campaign.

Invoking the words of 20th century Welsh poet Dylan Thomas to "not go gentle into that good night," but "rage" against it, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America's new television commercial is seeking to convince the public the prices they pay for their medicines funds cutting-edge research that may save their lives or those of their loved ones.

"When an indomitable will to cure pushes researchers to find the unfindable and cure the incurable, today's breakthroughs become tomorrow's medicines for all of us," the narrator of PhRMA's "Go Boldly" ad declares.

The commercial is the first in a series of new advertisements PhRMA plans to introduce throughout the year focusing on various advancements in science and featuring what the Washington-based lobbying group said are stories of "real researchers who are driving these cutting-edge advances alongside patients benefiting from the medicines that are being developed."

The release of the new ad comes after Trump accused drugmakers during a Jan. 11 news conference of "getting away with murder" on pricing — a statement that sent the shares of several biopharmaceutical companies plunging.

During his Jan. 23 White House daily briefing, Sean Spicer, Trump's chief spokesman, said the drug pricing issue was going to continue to be a focus for the new president.

Getting prescription drug costs under control will be part of Trump's effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, Spicer said, offering no other details.

Trump also has called for the ban to be lifted on negotiating prices for medicines covered by the U.S. government for the elderly and disabled patients under the Medicare Part D prescription drug program.

But Stephen Ubl, president and CEO of PhRMA, said negotiations already take place through the private insurers and pharmacy-benefit managers involved in Part D plans.

"In fact, research suggests that on average, due to that fierce negotiation that already takes place, consumers get a 35% discount," he said on CNBC's Squawk on the Street on Jan. 23.

Ubl said his group is willing to work with Trump on policies that would enhance the biopharmaceutical market. Trump met with Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky and other business leaders to discuss ideas for creating more U.S. jobs.

The drug industry, which invests $70 billion in research and development in the U.S. every year and is directly or indirectly responsible for 4.5 million American jobs, is the "crown jewel of the American economy," Ubl said.

But the industry has got to do a better job of telling its story, he said.

Much of the public discussion about drug pricing has been focused on "some guy in a hoodie," Ubl said, referring to Martin Shkreli, the former CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals. Turing upped the price by more than 5,000% of Daraprim, a drug used to treat toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection often seen in HIV-infected patients.

But what is happening in the labs — the work of the researchers to identify better treatments and cures — often goes untold, Ubl told CNBC.

What is needed, the PhRMA CEO said, is "less hoodie, more lab coats."

Shkreli responded in an online blog post on Jan. 23, telling Ubl "don't you dare point your finger at me for the pharmaceutical industry's troubles."

"It turns out we've all made some unpopular moves," he said in his Pharma Skeletons blog, in which he comments on drug price increases by more than a dozen companies.