In one way, this is the story of a highly respected physician, Dr. Jim Lee, who treated AIDS patients in the early ’80s when other doctors wanted nothing to do with the “gay epidemic.” He was a star among his patients, and became well-known in Los Angeles. In another way, this is the story of a unique drug. In 1996, Serostim was approved to treat the wasting away that plagued AIDS patients towards the end of their lives, at a cost of $75,000 a year, although its maker Serono Labs eventually lowered the price somewhat. Serostim is essentially human growth hormone (HGH), which is very popular among body builders and people who believe it may extend their lives, but cannot be prescribed for those conditions.
But for Serono, the timing of the drug’s introduction was inauspicious. Effective combinations of antiretroviral drugs designed to combat AIDS had just been approved, leading to massive decreases in deaths from the virus. Serostim’s “use as an HIV drug was limited by the fact that wasting is a really late-stage manifestation of AIDS,” says Ng, the immunologist. Advances in other therapies soon meant that the symptom Serostim was meant to treat rarely presented.
In response, Serono launched a marketing blitz. In 1997, it trained sales representatives to broadly “redefine AIDS wasting,” developing an unapproved device to measure “body cell mass” so that more HIV patients would qualify for Serostim. In 2001, federal prosecutors filed a suit against Serono on charges of filing false claims, or illegally promoting the sale of a medication. The firm pled guilty to charges related to bringing a group of American doctors on an all-expenses-paid trip to Cannes, France, in exchange for prescribing Serostim. The suit was settled in April 2005; Serono was ordered to pay more than $700 million. Sullivan, the U.S. attorney in Boston, told The New York Times that 85 percent of all Serostim prescriptions were unnecessary.
There were still ways to sell Serostim, even to those who wanted it for off-label purposes, which involved cash-strapped AIDS patients, insurance companies, and Dr. Jim Lee. You can read (or listen to) that story at Narratively. -via Damn Interesting
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