Have drug; need patients: Big Pharma seeks uses for Seroquel
by Martha Rosenberg
The screaming woman is right out of Friday the 13th Part 2 or Halloween.
Face contorted, mouth in an impossible S shape, she looks like she's being
murdered--or doing the murdering.
Other photos show her clenching her teeth, pulling her hair and screeching
into the telephone.
Is it an ad for the remake of Psycho that everyone's been waiting for?
No, it's an ad to sell the latest disease big pharma hopes will move its
drugs: bipolar disorder.
And as everyone who remembers HRT marketing knows, the quickest way to sell
a drug is showing out of control women.
"Are there periods of time when you have racing thoughts? Fly off the handle
at little things? Spend out of control?" ask the magazine ads. "Need less
sleep? Feel irritable? You may need treatment for bipolar disorder."
Of course you may also have had too much coffee or a bad day at the office.
But mental illness makes a lot more money.
Especially if you decide to take AstraZeneca's Seroquel.
Created in 1988 by tweaking an existing antipsychotic compound enough to
merit a patent, 1 Seroquel (quetiapine fumarate) had the three things big
pharma loves most in a drug: a short time from R&D to sales, a daily ad
infinitum dosage and a high price. ($11.82 a day or $4,300 a year) 2 It was
approved in 1997 for schizophrenia.
At first it was a block buster, accounting for one dollar in nine of
AstraZeneca revenue. 3
But then in 2005, that cheeky New England Journal of Medicine found Seroquel
and other atypical antipsychotics except one had no advantage over the older
antipsychotics like Haldol and Thorazine. (Except of course price.) 4
Including the putative reduction in rigidity and tremors that was their
selling point. 2
The finding, part of a six-year National Institutes of Health comparative
drug study, provided "a comprehensive set of data that were obtained
independently of the pharmaceutical industry," commented principal
investigator Jeffrey Lieberman, adding insult to injury. 4
Around the same time the just as cheeky British Medical Journal 5 announced
that Seroquel and a similar atypical antipsychotic were ineffective in
reducing agitation among Alzheimer's patients who constitute 29 percent of
In fact, Seroquel was found to actually make cognitive functioning worse in
the elderly patients with dementia studied.
Then there was the police blotter. Violent assault reports increasingly
mentioned Seroquel---one in Yonkers, NY began, "The city jail guard who shot
his wife before killing himself had just begun taking a powerful
antipsychotic drug that listed 'suicide attempt' among its possible side
effects"6--and law suits began piling up. Three hundred and eighty according
to USA Today. 7
One young Seroquel patient told the Chicago Sun-Times, "It would take me
anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half to get out of bed each
morning. I couldn't think, I couldn't see, and I couldn't be me," and that
the license of the physician who prescribed her Seroquel was revoked. 8
And there was bad financial news too.
AstraZeneca's new blood thinner and diabetes drug were both stalled due to
safety concerns and Teva Pharmaceuticals, a generic drug maker, challenged
Seroquel's patent to the FDA. 2
So AstraZeneca did what drug companies that put marketing before medicine
always do: came up with a new use for Seroquel (bipolar disorder) 2 and new
formulation (sustained release) 9 and yelled breakthrough.
Now all it has to do is convince millions of healthy women and men they
should take a major tranquilizer, an antipsychotic for schizophrenia,
because they had a bad day. That's before it gets to the kids.
Maybe the screaming woman in the ad has just seen the AstraZeneca marketing