Valeant (Somehow) Hits Another Low: Torturing Dying People

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ValGoldNo company can be this stupid, right?

After a year or so of being accused of everything from obscene price hikes to financial fraud and possibly even breaking up the Beatles, you would think that the fools who run Canada-based Valeant Pharmaceuticals might want to try to work on their image a bit.

If this was indeed their intention, then they got off to a really bad start. As recently reported in MedCity News, the company doubled the price of a really old, cheap drug that is used to end the suffering of terminally ill people. Was this a calculated move? You decide.

Seconal, a member of barbiturate family of sedatives/sleeping pills, has essentially one remaining use — assisted suicide. This is not a coincidence. Barbiturates, the best known being phenobarbital, were almost entirely replaced in the 1960s by benzodiazepines (Valium, for example) because the “benzos” are much safer, especially with regard to overdosing.

Yet, it is the overdose risk that makes Seconal an ideal suicide aid, which is why it is prescribed in Oregon for physician-assisted suicide. Ten grams, the equivalent of one-hundred 100 mg capsules will make you go to sleep, and not wake up.

It is very unlikely that it was a coincidence that last year Valeant just happened to buy Seconal, and within one month, doubled its price. At that time, California’s own right-to-die law, which will go into effect in June, was being first proposed. Valeant now charges $3,000 for the same "effective" dose of the same drug that cost $200 in 2009.

As a strong proponent of right-to-die laws, this is infuriating. As an organic chemist, it is even more so. Here’s why.

Seconal is not only very inexpensive to synthesize, but it is also quite easy. Any chemist with even marginal skills can make dozens, or even hundreds of lethal doses in a day. This is partly because the synthetic steps are simple, and partly because the chemicals needed to make it are readily available and cheap.

Here is the list, along with the price per gram of the the five chemicals you need. All of these can be purchased from Sigma-Aldrich, the largest research chemical supplier:

  • Urea- 20 cents
  • Diethyl malonate- 7 cents
  • Sodium ethoxide- 62 cents
  • Allyl bromide- 45 cents
  • 2-Bromopentane- 27 cents

Without bothering to do the math, I’ll hazard a guess that it might cost five bucks to make the same 10 grams that Valeant is charging $3,000 for. And you'd probably have to spill half of it in the process to spend the fiver.

Not that you’d even be able to get your hands on it (Seconal is a Schedule II regulated drug), but there are plenty of companies that make it. The price: about $2,000 per pound— roughly one fourth-fifth that of Valeant.

If you're not already angry, read this report by California Healthline. It describes:

  • A retired army sergeant named Mark Fairchild, who has metastatic melanoma, which has spread to his brain and bones. Cancer in the bones is especially painful, and Fairchild, who can no longer leave his home, is terrified of dying in agony: "I don’t want to hurt ever. ... I can’t fathom the idea of being in pain and not having a way out.”
  •  An 88-year-old man who has cancer of tongue and blood, and is comforted only by the fact that June (when the law takes effect) is not far away. This elderly man, Wolf Breiman said, "I’m hoping I will be OK until this becomes available. ... I might be able to spare myself a great deal of suffering."

These people and their families are already suffering horribly. Yet, when looking for relief that will spare them from a disease that will only torture them more as it progresses, they run into a company that is going to give them an additional $3,000 dose of pain for something that I could make in my kitchen for pennies. Disgusting.

I have always been the first person to cut drug companies a break, since I know firsthand how expensive and impossibly difficult it is to discover a new drug. But these vultures get no break. This is a 70-year old drug that they did not discover, and costs them virtually nothing to make. Shame on them.