An orphan disease is a rare and uncommon disease and an ‘Orphan Drug’ is a pharmaceutical substance that has been developed to treat an orphan disease. The US FDA defines a rare disease, with a prevalence of 1 in 5,000 of the general population, whereas in the European Union (EU) defines it as a disease with a prevalence of 5 in 10,000 of the population.
Around 6-8% of the world population is manifested by such rare diseases. There are around 5000 of reported rare diseases with an ascending growth trend.
Despite such trend, high drug development cost coupled with low return on investment, do not encourage many innovator pharmaceutical companies to get engaged in R&D initiatives for such drugs. However, this perception is fast changing, as we shall see below.
US took the first step to encourage commercialization of ‘Orphan Drugs’:
Public awareness drives for ‘Orphan Diseases’ first originated in the USA with the formation of a rare disease support group representing around 200,000 patients suffering from such diseases. This awareness campaign ultimately culminated into a path breaking legislation in the US named, ‘Orphan Drugs Act’ (ODA), in 1983. The key purpose of ODA was to incentivize initiatives towards development of such drugs to treat around 25 million Americans suffering from ‘Orphan diseases’. The incentives included:
- Funding towards investigation for “Orphan Disease’ treatment
- Tax credit for Clinical Research
- Waiver of fees for New Drug Application (NDA)
- Offering more lucrative incentive than product patent (product patent requires the drug to be novel), as the orphan designation of the product by the US FDA and product approval by them are the only requirements for 7 year market exclusivity of an ‘Orphan Drug’ for the same indication.
- Market exclusivity of ‘Orphan Drugs’ become effective from the date of regulatory approval, unlike product patent, product development time remains outside this period.
- The drugs, which are not eligible for product patent, may be eligible for market exclusivity as an ‘Orphan Drug’ by the US-FDA
Thanks to this Act, currently around 230 ‘Orphan Drugs’ are available in the US for the treatment of around 11 million patients suffering from rare diseases. With the help of ‘Human Genome Project’ more orphan diseases are expected to be identified and newer drugs will be required to treat these rare ailments of human population.
1983 signaled the importance of ‘Orphan Drugs’ with the ODA in the US. A decade after in 1993, Japan took similar initiative followed by Australia in 1999. Currently, Singapore, South Korea, Canada and New Zealand are also having their country specific ODAs.
India needs ODA:
Unfortunately in India, we do not have any ODA, as of now. Such legislation could give a new fillip to the Indian Pharmaceutical and Bio-Pharmaceutical industry and at the same time usher in a new hope to thousands of patients suffering from rare diseases in India, with the availability of relatively lower cost medications to them.
The global market:
The global market of ‘Orphan Drugs’ is expected to grow to US $ 112 billion in 2014 from US $85 billion in 2009. Biotech products contribute around 70% of this turnover with relatively higher CAGR growth rate of around 7%. However, reluctance of the insurance companies to cover ‘Orphan Drugs’ due to higher price still remains a global issue.
Orphan drugs to create a paradigm shift in the Pharmaceutical Industry: says Frost & Sullivan:
“While the pharmaceutical industries have been focusing on ‘blockbuster’ small molecules (chemical drugs) for high revenue generation in the past, it is expected that in 5 years, around $90.0 billion worth of branded drugs will lose their exclusivity. The current economic situation plus the huge generic competition shifted the focus of pharmaceutical companies and they are moving to a new business model – ‘Niche busters’, also called Orphan drugs.”
It is believed that Orphan drugs will now offer an attractive opportunity to the pharmaceutical companies than ever before to significantly absorb the impact of the ‘Patent Cliff’. Various financial incentives provided by the governments of various countries under the ODA coupled with many smaller collaborative projects towards this direction will further encourage the global pharmaceutical players to develop ‘Orphan Drugs.
Currently, EU has granted over 700 ‘Orphan Designations’ and over 60 new drugs have received favorable response for Market Authorization.
Sales potential for ‘Orphan Drugs’:
Generally ‘Orphan Drugs’ were not expected to be very high revenue earners. However, about 4 year ago in the year 2006, about 50 ‘Orphan Drugs’ were reported to had crossed a sales turnover of US $200 million. In 2006 the following ‘Orphan Drugs’ with expired market Exclusivity in the US, had assumed blockbuster status:
- Enbrel (Immunex): US $ 4.38 billion
- Rituxan (Genentech): US$ 3.97 billion
- Nupogen/Neulasta (Amgen): US $ 3.92 billion
- Epogen (Amgen): US $ 2.50 billion
- Avonex (Biogen): US $ 1.70 billion
- Betaseron (Novartis & Bayer): US $ 1.33 billion
- Intron A/ PEG-Intron (Schering): US $ 1.07 billion
- Kogenate (Bayer): US $ 1.07 billion
- Ceredase/Cerezyme (Genzyme): US $ 1.00 billion
Key growth drivers for ‘Orphan Drugs’:
In my view the following key factors will play critical role in driving the growth for ‘Orphan Drugs’:
- Market exclusivity options for a number of FDA recognized ‘Orphan Indications’ for the same drug
- Market exclusivity for seven years in the U.S. and ten years in the EU for each of the ‘Orphan Indications’
- Oncology could be a good segment to get such multiple ‘Orphan Indications’ for the same molecule
Glivec of Novartis obtained approval for around five new ‘Orphan Indications’, the key indications being Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML) and Gastrointestinal Stomal Tumors. The product has already assumed a global blockbuster status with an estimated sales turnover of over US $4 billion by 2011.
Biotech companies are champions for the development of ‘Orphan Drugs’, globally:
Since long, the Biotech companies are taking initiatives for the development of ‘Orphan Drugs’. The path breaker in this respect was Genentech of the US, which developed two growth hormone molecules with names Protophin and Nutrophin, way back in 1985. Now, having realized the hidden potential of this segment more number of pharmaceutical players are entering into this arena. Thus, it is no wonder that 13 out of 19 blockbuster ‘Orphan Drugs’ were biologics in the year 2006.
It is interesting to note that some of the ‘orphan diseases’ are now being diagnosed in India, as well. As India takes rapid strides in the medical science, more of such ‘Orphan Diseases’ are likely to be known in our country. Thus the moot question is how does India address this issue with pro-active measures?
Currently, India is curving out a strong niche for itself in the space of biogenerics. Pfizer-Biocon deal will vindicate this point.
Moreover, with Pharmacogenomics keep gaining ground at a faster pace, as I mentioned earlier, there will be a shift towards personalized medicines, in not too distant future, in which case the blockbuster drugs as defined today, will be effective only for a smaller number of patients. If the Government of India visualizes this scenario sooner, and comes out with appropriate ODA for the country, domestic pharmaceutical industry of India, in general and biopharmaceuticals industry of the country, in particular, will be able emerge as a force to reckon with, in this important global space, much faster than what one would currently anticipate.
Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.