Billionaire drugmaker granted patent for opioid addiction

In the midst of a devastating epidemic of opioid abuse and misuse, a billionaire pharmaceutical maker has been granted a patent to treat opioid addiction, the Financial Times reported.

The Sackler family, makers of opioid painkiller OxyContin and owners of the drug company Purdue Pharma, also own Rhodes Pharma, a small, Rhode Island-based drugmaker and producer of off-patent generic opioids. Richard Sackler was granted a patent earlier this year for a reformulation of a drug that can help wean addicts off of opioids, the Financial Times reported.

The drug, a form of buprenorphine, can act as a substitute for people addicted to opioid painkillers like OxyContin or heroin. According to the FT, Suboxone is a well-known brand of buprenorphine—sold by British pharmaceuticals group Indivior—that generated $877 million in U.S. sales last year.

The new revelations come at a time when the opioid epidemic has reached new heights, with opioid overdoses contributing to 72,000 deaths in the U.S. in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Sacklers, with the combined companies accounting for 14.4 million opioid prescriptions in 2016, or 6 percent of the U.S. opioid market, could stand to financially gain on both sides of the opioid crisis, the FT reported. Purdue Pharma is also facing several lawsuits from attorneys general and individuals for their role in the opioid epidemic. The family is worth an estimated $14 billion, according to Forbes.

Some of the lawsuits launched against Purdue allege the company understated the impacts of OxyContin and undersold the addictiveness of the medication. Purdue spent about $1 billion in sales marketing targeting doctors, according to a lawsuit by New York state.

Most recently, Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman launched a lawsuit against the company alleging deceptive and fraudulent marketing of prescription opioids. The family and Purdue are also being sued in Massachusetts for their roles in the opioid crisis. Purdue has denied any wrongdoing and refutes the allegations.

Sackler’s new patent to treat opioid addiction appears to be much more explicit about the addiction dangers of Purdue’s drugs.

“While opioids have always been known to useful in pain treatment, they also display an addictive potential,” the patent reads, as reported by the FT. “Thus, if opioids are taken by healthy human subjects with a drug-seeking behavior they may lead to psychological as well as addictive dependence.”

The two companies owned by the Sacklers, Rhodes and Purdue, are seventh in terms of market share for drug-making when combined, according to the FT.

Purdue Pharma announced on Sept. 5 it was giving $3.4 million to Harm Reduction Therapeutics, a non-profit pharmaceutical company dedicated to preventing opioid overdose deaths through making naloxone, an opioid antagonist, low cost and available. The funding will go toward developing a low-cost, over-the-counter nasal spray of naxolone.