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Gold in Oldies

You can teach an old drug new tricks.

Would ancient Egyptians ever have imagined that aspirin, extracted from an infusion of willow bark and ingested to control inflammation, might someday protect weak hearts? Would the military scientists who developed mustard gas ever have thought that its derivatives might someday treat cancer?

Probably not, but creative thinking, serendipity, and focused research by drug developers are bringing more old drugs out of retirement for a second—or sometimes third or fourth—chance at life. Even such shunned compounds as thalidomide are being reintroduced under new guises.

Recycling Drugs; Copyright © 2004 Acumen Sciences, LLC, All Rights Reserved.Thalidomide, which gained notoriety in the ’60s, when babies whose mothers had taken it as a sedative were born deformed, was approved five years ago for use against leprosy. It is also being investigated by the pharmaceutical company Celgene as a treatment for multiple myeloma and prostate cancer. The trend is set to continue. Drug pipelines are running dry, and less money is available for research and development. Therefore, existing treatments, with a wealth of accumulated clinical experience behind them, are an increasingly inviting resource.

Small companies are the keenest prospectors. In part, this is because by the time enough evidence accumulates to support fresh “indications” for a drug, its patentmay have expired, relegating it to the less lucrative status of a generic drug. “Big companies won’t touch anything with less than $300 million potential,” says Daniel Hoffman, director of PBRA Consulting. “There’s a whole segment of the industry that specializes in taking products that are under $300 million and repurposing them.”

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