Hunter Moss, MJLST Staffer
Depression is a serious mental disorder that afflicts millions of Americans each year. One in three of these individuals struggles to find a treatment method that alleviates their condition, and are aptly said to suffer from treatment-resistant depression. In the most severe cases, treating depression can be a life or death decision—depression is the leading cause of over 41,000 suicides every year. For those dealing with depression, every day is a struggle to persevere and try to regain a sense of normalcy.
A new therapy for treatment-resistant depression was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) earlier this week, one that could help those that have been unable to find relief elsewhere. The unexpected source of the therapy is esketamine. If the name of this drug sounds familiar, it is because the name is based on, and molecularly similar to, the street drug named ketamine. While originally synthesized in the 1960’s as an anesthetic and first used widely in the Vietnam War, ketamine is now known as a party drug, providing the user with mild hallucinations and a sense of euphoria. Due to its dangerous side-effects and potential for abuse, ketamine was placed on the Schedule III of the United States Controlled Substance Act in August of 1999.
In the early 1990’s, researchers at Yale University first recognized the potential for ketamine to treat the symptoms of depression. Since then, scientists sought to confirm the viability of ketamine as a treatment option for individuals who did not experience relief from other treatment methods. A 2012 study out of Baylor College of Medicine proved just that: 85% of patients with severe depression reported the treatment to be effective. Unlike selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which are most commonly prescribed to treat depression and can take weeks to build in a patient’s system before becoming effective, ketamine can provide nearly immediate relief with its full effect being felt in as little as two days.
With the science firmly in place, the next hurdle advocates of ketamine faced was of perception—in the eyes of the FDA and the public alike. Radical clinics began to emerge across the country to provide patients suffering from treatment-resistant depression with a safe, heavily-monitored environment to undergo care. Because ketamine had yet to be recognized as a potential aid for depression by the FDA, clinic physicians would often have to prescribe the drug under the guise of using it as an anesthetic. The “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to a new treatment for a severe mental disorder created some inevitable quandaries for both doctors and patients, who would be unable to receive insurance coverage for a non-FDA approved treatment program.
While the medical community was well aware of the healing potential of ketamine, pharmaceutical companies were reluctant to make the investment. The average price-tag of a clinical trial for the FDA is $19m. There is certainly a market for the drug with countless Americans suffering from depression. The issue holding pharmaceutical companies back is related to patent law. In order to receive a patent, the proposed invention must be novel—and considering that ketamine has been around for nearly sixty years, that would be an impossible claim to make. Without patent protection, the multi-million dollar investment is bad economics for big pharma, even if the trials could provide relief for millions of Americans.
So why did Janssen Pharmaceuticals, the developer of a treatment method for depression based on ketamine, make the investment and receive FDA approval for its new drug Sprovato? The answer is because Sprovato is esketamine, a sufficiently different molecule from ketamine to be patentable. Certain molecules can be left-handed and have right-handed doppelgangers. While it is beyond the scope of this blog piece (and the ability of its author) to explain the difference between the two, esketamine is the left-handed version of ketamine’s right hand. The deviation between the molecules is a significant enough difference to pass the novelty requirement necessitated by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). While there is some debate as to whether esketamine is as effective as its counterpart, esketamine passed the FDA’s clinical trials and, for the most part, has been received as a viable alternative to ketamine treatment. This development could help legitimize the countless ketamine clinics that have emerged across the United States over the last few years, yielding a promising new alternative for those struggling with severe depression. At the same time, the story of ketamine raises questions about the roles of several actors in the health care system, specifically pharmaceutical companies, the FDA and the USPTO, in delaying the introduction of life saving medication in order to adhere their respective financial and regulatory requirements.