Cancer patients taking high doses of opioid painkillers are often afflicted by a new discomfort: constipation. Researcher Jonathan Moss thought he could help, but no drug company was interested in his ideas for relieving suffering among the dying.
So Moss and his colleagues pieced together small grants and, in 1997, received permission to test their treatment. But not on cancer patients. Federal regulators urged them to use a less frail — and by then, rapidly expanding — group: addicts caught in the throes of a nationwide opioid epidemic.
Suddenly, Moss said, investors were knocking at his door.
“As clinicians, we wanted to help palliative patients,” said Moss, a professor and physician at University of Chicago Medicine. “The company that bought our work saw a broader market.”
Today, Moss’s side project is hailed as the next billion-dollar drug. And the once-disinterested pharmaceutical industry is bombarding doctors and the public with information about a serious, if previously unrecognized, condition common among the millions of Americans who take prescription painkillers. They call it “opioid-induced constipation,” or “OIC.”
The story of OIC illuminates the opportunism of pharmaceutical innovators and the consequences of a heavily drug-dependent society. Six in 10 American adults take prescription drugs, creating a vast market for new meds to treat the side effects of the old ones.
Opioid prescriptions alone have skyrocketed from 112 million in 1992 to nearly 249 million in 2015, the latest year for which numbers are available, and America’s dependence on the drugs has reached crisis levels. Millions are addicted to or abusing prescription painkillers such as OxyContin, Vicodin and Percocet. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that, from 1999 to 2014, more than 165,000 people died in the United States from prescription-opioid overdoses, which have contributed to a startling increase in early mortality among whites, particularly women — a devastating toll that has hit hardest in small towns and rural areas.
The pharmaceutical industry’s response has been more drugs. The opioid market — now worth nearly $10 billion a year in sales in the United States — has expanded to include a growing universe of medications aimed at treating secondary effects rather than controlling pain.
There’s Suboxone, financed and promoted by the U.S. government as a safer alternative to methadone for those trying to break their dependence on opioids. There’s naloxone, the emergency injection and nasal spray carried by first responders to treat overdoses. And now there’s Relistor, the drug based on Moss’s work, and a competitor, Movantik, for constipation.
In colorful charts designed to entice investors, numerous pharmaceutical makers tout the “expansion opportunity” that exists in the “opioid use disorders population.”
Indivior, a specialty pharmaceutical company listed on the London Stock Exchange, sees “around 2.5m potential patients, the majority of whom are addicted to prescription painkillers,” as opposed to illicit drugs such as heroin. Another company, New Jersey-based Braeburn Pharmaceuticals, highlights “growth drivers” for the market, noting that millions of additional Americans not yet identified are also likely to be dependent on opioid painkillers.
Analysts estimate that each of these submarkets — addiction, overdose and side effects — is worth at least $1 billion a year in sales. These economics, experts say, work against efforts to end the epidemic.
If opioid addiction disappeared tomorrow, it would wipe billions of dollars from the drug companies’ bottom lines.
Related: The War On Kratom