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Health Policy. 2010 May;95(2-3):216-28. doi: 10.1016/j.healthpol.2009.12.001. Epub 2009 Dec 29.

The US Orphan Drug Act: rare disease research stimulator or commercial opportunity?

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Division of Dermatology, Department of Medicine, University of British Columbia, 835 West 10th Ave, Vancouver, BC, Canada.



This study investigates issues associated with the United States Orphan Drug Act.


A comprehensive orphan drug database was compiled from FDA data and corporate annual reports of major pharmaceutical companies. Analysis allowed the generation of a descriptive orphan drug portrait as well as documentation of orphan drugs along their lifecycle.


Currently, 2002 products have obtained orphan drug designation with 352 drugs obtaining FDA approval. Approximately 33% of orphan drugs are oncology products. On average, products obtain 1.7 orphan designations with approximately 70% obtaining a single designation. At least 9% of orphan drugs have reached blockbuster status with two-thirds having two or more designations. An additional 25 orphan drugs had sales exceeding US$ 100 million in 2008 alone. Since 1983, at least 14 previously discontinued products have been recycled as orphan drugs.


The United States Orphan Drug Act has created issues which, in some cases, have led to commercial and ethical abuses. Orphan Drug Act reform is necessary but current incentives, including 7 year market exclusivity, should be maintained in order to favour patients as well as economic prosperity. Suggested reforms include price regulation, subsidy paybacks for profitable drugs and the establishment of an International Orphan Drug Office.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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