Friday, January 25, 2008

Big Bucks and Orphan Drugs

I had the opportunity a while ago to cover a pharmaceutical company’s drug development meeting. The meeting took place at a lovely and incredibly expensive hotel, and the salmon and petit fours for lunch were a far cry from my usual refrigerator-browsing when I work at home. I knew that the pharmaceutical industry was exceedingly wealthy, but I hadn’t seen it up close before.

The people at the meeting included deferential twenty-something sales representatives and assistants; opinionated mid-career researchers and doctors, who occasionally cracked incomprehensible jokes involving biochemical formulas; and a polite and self-deprecating high-level executive. I’m sure there were plenty of office politics and power plays behind the scenes, but as an observer what I saw was a well-oiled machine. The real politics were external: a corporation versus the FDA (“the Agency,” they called it). The pharmaceutical company was starting human trials of a new drug that they hoped to bring to market if all went well.

For all the people at the meeting, and the expense and effort of bringing everyone together (many from out of town), the new drug was not a potential blockbuster. It was an orphan drug. Orphan drugs are developed to treat rare (orphan) diseases, defined as: diseases that affect 200,000 or fewer Americans, and/or diseases that are uncommon in the developed world (although they may be common elsewhere).

In the past, orphan drugs were too unprofitable for pharmaceutical companies to develop. In 1983, however, the federal government passed the Orphan Drug Act (ODA) to provide tax incentives, research grant money, and marketing benefits to companies that develop orphan drugs. The ODA has had a huge impact on orphan drug development. According to the FDA, from 1973 to 1983, about one orphan drug was brought to market per year. Since 1983, about 250 orphan drugs and products have been brought to market – averaging about ten each year.

The drug in question at the pharmaceutical meeting was designed to replace the current drug treatment, which has several miserable side effects that inhibit patient compliance, for a disease so rare that there might be more people involved in developing and regulating this new drug than there are potential patients for it. But if it survives the trials and the FDA and is brought to market, the drug could vastly improve the quality of life of these patients. It was good to see such altruism from a pharmaceutical company, even if it was prompted by a big carrot from the federal government.