Drug company pushes jet lag as a medical disorder

Photo by Flickr user sparktography. Click for sourceThe Wall Street Journal’s health blog reports that drug company Cephalon are trying to get jet lag recognised as a ‘circadian rhythm sleep disorder’ in an attempt to promote their stay-up-forever drugs modafinil and armodafinil.

Modafinil, under the trade name Provigil, is currently a big seller for the company owing to the fact that it deletes the need for sleep and improves concentration typically without making the person feel particularly ‘wired’.

It’s licensed for the treatment of narcolepsy but is widely used by people without a prescription to stay awake and fend off mental tiredness.

Unfortunately, for Cephalon, modafinil will go out of patent in 2012, meaning its profit making capabilities virtually disappear as competitors will be able to produce the compound at a markedly reduced price.

In the mean time, the company has been developing a very similar but newly patentable drug named armodafinil. In fact, armodafinil has been created by a common ploy used by drug companies when they need to renew a patent on a drug.

Many drug molecules have two versions – both identical but mirror images of each other. Drugs work when the drug molecule ‘hand’ inserts itself into the appropriately matching neuroreceptor ‘glove’.

In the same way that you can’t put your left hand into a right glove, mirror image drug molecules need their matching receptor and each might have a different effect.

Many drugs, like modafinil, are mixture of both left and right-handed enantiomers, even though only one of the mirror images has the desired effect. In the case of modafinil, it’s the right-handed mirror image that seems the most potent.

So a common drug company ploy is to released a new drug which has been synthesised to remove the inactive or less active molecule.

Armodafinil, their new drug, is just this. It’s just the right-handed modafinil molecules.

So essentially it’s the same drug but without the action of the other ‘half’. This can sometimes reduce side effects, or improve the action of the drug, but in general the difference is relatively minor.

Importantly though, you can get a new patent on this synthesized version, meaning profit is guaranteed as long as you can convince people that your new drug is worth switching too. And this is where the spin comes in.

Because in many countries drug must be approved for a medical problem, Cephalon are trying to get jet lag classified as a disorder so they have a whole new market for their compound.

It also turns out that they’re sharply hiking the price on modafinil, so when the new, initially lower-priced armodafinil appears, people will switch.

They’ll then get used to using armodafinil and when modafinil becomes super-cheap and generic sometime later they’ve already established their market on their ‘premium branded’ new compound. Normally, the price begins to rise afterwards.

Isn’t progress great?

Link to WSJ on Cephalon and jet lag as a ‘disorder’.
Link to WSJ on modafinil price hike strategy.

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