Drug development for orphan diseases in the context of personalized medicine.

Department of Human Genetics, University of Michigan Medical School, Ann Arbor, Mich. 48109-0534, USA.
Translational research : the journal of laboratory and clinical medicine 12/2009; 154(6):314-22. DOI: 10.1016/j.trsl.2009.03.008
Source: PubMed

ABSTRACT Orphan diseases are diseases that are found in less than 200,000 patients in the United States, which is the cutoff point for the number of patients for a drug to be profitable. Because many thousands of orphan diseases exist in the aggregate (about 20 to 30 million Americans have orphan diseases), these patients are disenfranchised from drug development by the pharmaceutical industry. Orphan drugs are a large part of personalized medicine. The orphan diseases are often so rare that a physician may observe only 1 case a year or less. So proper treatment is a personalized encounter between doctor and patient. Academic physician-scientists have tried to fill this therapy vacuum by working on developing orphan drugs. But many disincentives are involved, which include career disincentives, lack of funding, and the multiple areas of expertise that are required. Positive developments include formation of the National Organization for Rare Diseases, the Orphan Drug Act, the development of a grant program to fund orphan drug development, the formation of the National Institutes of Health Office of Rare Diseases, and the passage of orphan drug legislation by other countries. Progress has increased, but the 300 orphan drugs and devices approved in the last 25 years are still only a drop in the bucket compared with the many thousands of orphan diseases. I believe we must do better. I present my own 2 examples of the positive and the negative aspects of orphan drug development, and I end this article by giving recommendations on how we might succeed both in developing more orphan drugs and in rescuing the pharmaceutical industry from its impending economic collapse.

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