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$89,000 Orphan Drug Gets A New Owner — And Likely A New Price

Prescription bottle with pills spilling out and forming a dollar sign on a black background

Marathon Pharmaceuticals’ controversial $89,000-a-year drug that has drawn outrage from patients and intense questioning from Congress is getting a new owner.

After striking a deal Wednesday evening, PTC Therapeutics announced plans early Thursday to buy the Duchenne muscular dystrophy drug Emflaza from Marathon for $140 million in cash and stock. The drug’s new price was not announced.

While declining to answer questions about price, PTC Chief Executive Stuart Peltz built up the value of Emflaza, which is a steroid, in an investor conference call. Emflaza, he said, is an “important new drug” and “disease-modifying.”

On price, PTC believes “a change needs to be made, however it’s premature to speculate exactly what that will be,” Peltz said.

Emflaza was approved as an orphan drug with the Food and Drug Administration last month, and PTC executives said they expected it to treat 9,000 Duchenne patients in the U.S. The drug has been available outside the U.S. for decades under the generic name deflazacort.

It is a steroid used to lessen the symptoms of Duchenne, a fatal muscle-wasting disease that affects mostly boys. For years, many American patients have imported the generic version at a cost averaging from $1,000 to $1,600 annually. The cost typically was not covered by insurers.

But the controversial price difference between the older generic and the newly approved drug has outraged patients and lawmakers.

“It’s just all insane,” said Dana Edwards, a New Jersey mother whose 12-year-old boy uses deflazacort, from overseas, to treat his Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Edwards said the generic costs her about $1,000 a year, and she worries that the PTC purchase will not affect Emflaza’s price.

“Honest to God, I think it’s going to have to remain pretty high,” Edwards said. “I pray to God that they do right by our community.”

Shortly after Marathon announced the price of Emflaza, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) sent a letter to the company demanding answers about pricing, saying the drug isn’t new. Marathon executives responded by delaying the drug’s market launch.

In early March, seven Democratic U.S. senators and one independent also demanded answers from the company in a letter that said they’re concerned that the price “exploits” patients. Marathon had responded by saying it was committed to ensuring that all patients had access to the drug.

Sanders and Cummings sent a letter to the FDA this week, asking about the approval process for Emflaza and saying that the price was “especially troubling” in light of the financial incentives Marathon received under the orphan drug approval process.

Those incentives include a seven-year market exclusivity for the drug as well as tax breaks on development and a waive in fees. Marathon also won a pediatric review voucher with its Emflaza approval. And the lawmakers’ letter zeroed in on the voucher program, which Congress approved in 2012 to encourage the development of drugs for rare pediatric disorders. Companies can keep the voucher to expedite the approval process for their next drug or sell it to another company. The vouchers have fetched prices of $350 million.

On Thursday, a Sanders aide confirmed that the lawmakers will continue examining the pricing and approval process for Emflaza.

Marathon executives declined interview requests. But the company sent a letter to the patient community stating that the deal will “create the opportunities needed” to make sure the greatest number of Duchenne patients could get the drug.

PTC’s Peltz, just as Marathon’s executives said last month, told investors that the company would reach out to the Duchenne community, physicians and payers. The company plans to disclose its price after the acquisition is finalized, which is expected by the end of June.

As part of the deal, Marathon will be entitled to payments based on Emflaza’s sales plus a one-time $50 million payment when the drug reaches an undisclosed sales-based milestone. In addition, Marathon executives will remain on the transition team to aid in the drug’s U.S. rollout.

PTC sees Emflaza as a first step into the U.S. Duchenne market, Peltz said. The company talked of pursuing a pediatric approval for the drug’s use.

PTC has another drug, Translarna, which received conditional approval for use in the European market to treat people with a specific mutation of Duchenne. The drug targets a different set of patients than those treated by Sarepta Therapuetics’ Exondys drug. It is currently being reviewed for use in the U.S.

Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy, a patient advocacy group, released a statement saying that PTC has a “long history” with the community. PPMD’s statement urged PTC to be “transparent about the methodology they will use when establishing their pricing.”

“The players may have changed,” PPMD said, but that doesn’t mean concerns about pricing have lessened.

KHN’s coverage of prescription drug development, costs and pricing is supported in part by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

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