•Wall Street Journal
•APRIL 12, 2010
An Old Gout Drug Gets New Life and a New Price, Riling Patients
•By JONATHAN D. ROCKOFF
A centuries-old drug used to treat excruciating gout pain had cost just pennies a tabletâ€”until last year. Now, the retail price has skyrocketed to more than $5 and some of the manufacturers have ceased production amid a battle over marketing rights.
The tale of how this common gout drug, colchicine, became the costlier branded drug Colcrys offers a window into the Byzantine world of drug pricing. The price rise is a consequence of a Food and Drug Administration effort to improve the safety of long-used but unapproved drugs, with a trade-off often made between drug affordability and safety.
In July 2009, a Philadelphia drug maker received FDA approval to exclusively market colchicine for gout attacks for three years. The company, URL Pharma Inc., was taking advantage of a push to bring medicines predating the FDA, like colchicine, under the agency's regulatory umbrella. The FDA offers exclusive marketing rights if a drug maker conducts clinical trials.
URL Pharma had commissioned studies that confirmed its colchicine product's safety and efficacy, while demonstrating it should be taken at a lower dose than typical and not used with certain other medicines. The company is marketing its drug as Colcrysâ€”and the retail cost averages $5 per pill, according to DestinationRx, a health-care data provider.
URL is also suing longtime manufacturers of unapproved colchicine, saying the companies are now illegally marketing their products. Some of the companies are fighting the lawsuits. Some themselves have raised pricesâ€”including one increase of just under a dollar per tablet to $1.17, according to DestinationRx. The higher price for Colcrys was first reported by Kaiser Health News.
There were 3.5 million prescriptions and $6.4 million in sales in 2008, according to the most recent data available from IMS Health, a drug-data firm.
"It's not a new product. It's been out for hundreds of years. To all of a sudden have to pay $125 or $150 a month, after it only cost $5 or $10 a month, is a real problem," said Stanley Cohen, a Dallas doctor who is the president of the American College of Rheumatology. He met with the FDA to express concern about the price increase.
The chief executive of URL Pharma, Richard Roberts, said that it priced Colcrys in line with other approved, branded drugs used to treat gout pain. To help patients afford Colcrys, Dr. Roberts said, the company is offering to pay a portion of co-pays, and it is providing a three-months' supply to low-income patients for $15.
Eileen Wood, vice president of pharmacy and health-quality programs at CDPHP, an insurer in New York state, said insurers will have to absorb much of the added expense. URL's contribution was "not any new therapeutic tool, not new science; they just added cost," she said.
Nancy Sparks Morrison, a retired schoolteacher who suffers from familial Mediterranean fever, an inflammatory disorder that's treated with colchicine, said she is buying colchicine from Canada because she can't afford Colcrys. Ms. Morrison said she plans to get help from URL Pharma to pay for Colcrys because the company has just expanded its assistance program. "I'm retired on Social Security, and I have a small pension," said Ms. Morrison, 71 years old, who lives outside Charleston, W.Va.
The price increase is an unintended consequence of the FDA's nearly four-year-old initiative to regulate unapproved drugs. These medicines were sold before the FDA was established, and therefore weren't required to undergo approval. After decades of use, the medicines are considered safe by doctors, but haven't been proven to satisfy the agency's standards. Colchicine's use has been traced back to the sixth century, according to the FDA.
Seventy drugs that were grandfathered have been approved since the FDA began its initiative, most notably pain reliever Vicodin, from Amneal Pharmaceuticals LLC, the FDA said.
The FDA had hoped a significant price increase wouldn't follow Colcrys's approval and regrets the increase, said Janet Woodcock, director of the agency's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. Dr. Woodcock encouraged more competition, saying another company could seek approval for colchicine's regular use in gout, rather than the acute use that URL Pharma received approval for.
There had been no standard for dosage before FDA approval. Colchicine's excessive use can cause side-effects, such as severe diarrhea that is potentially fatal. The FDA said it receives reports of five deaths a year, on average, involving patients who took colchicine tablets.
"We took bad guidance, even guesswork, and made this evidence-based medicine," Dr. Roberts said.
Closely held URL Pharma, which is owned by a hedge fund, a private investor and employees, is a longtime seller of generic drugs, including colchicine. When the FDA launched its push, the company began searching for those with safety risks whose patients could benefit from clinical testing, Dr. Roberts said.
URL Pharma said its 17 clinical trials of colchicine involved a total of 988 patients. The trials showed that gout patients need take two tablets after an attack and one more an hour later, the FDA said. Trials also demonstrated side-effects from use with certain other medicines, including some antibiotics and antihypertensive medicines. Those are now flagged on the label of Colcrys.
After obtaining FDA approval of Colcrys, URL Pharma went to federal court to sue manufacturers of colchicine, including Excellium Pharmaceutical Inc., Vision Pharma LLC, Watson Pharmaceuticals Inc. and West-Ward Pharmaceutical Corp., saying they have been illegally marketing their colchicine products since Colcrys's approval. A fifth company, Qualitest Pharmaceuticals, settled and stopped production. The four companies are fighting the lawsuits.
"You have this product out for at least a hundred years and all of a sudden it's no good?" said Lou Dretchen, who oversees sales and marketing at Excellium of Fairfield, N.J. Mr. Dretchen said the small, closely held generic drug maker stopped colchicine production after URL Pharma sued. The other companies declined to comment.
Mon Apr 12, 2010 1:43 pm