Purdue Pharma made billions selling the opioid pain medication OxyContin — a painkiller over which the company was fined millions of dollars for misleading federal regulators as to its addictive nature.
Now, the pharmaceutical company has been granted a patent for a medication that is designed to help treat opioid addiction, allowing Purdue to rake in further profits from a health crisis it not only helped create but also fuelled for years.
The patent, first reported by The Financial Times, is for a new and faster-acting form of buprenorphine. Buprenorphine controls drug cravings and is often given as a substitute to people hooked on heroin or opioid painkillers such as OxyContin.
Buprenorphine is currently prescribed in tablets or fast-dissolving strips. The patent is for a "wafer" of buprenorphine that would dissolve in just a few seconds.
The company is now willing to fully acknowledge the potential harm of opioid painkillers:
"While opioids have always been known to be useful in pain treatment, they also display an addictive potential," the patent states. "Thus, if opioids are taken by healthy human subjects with a drug-seeking behaviour they may lead to psychological as well as physical dependence."
Numerous lawsuits allege that Purdue Pharma — and in one case, the Sackler family who controls it — knowingly fuelled the opioid epidemic for years, though the company and the Sacklers deny such accusations.
CBS News notes that Richard Sackler is listed on the patent as one of the inventors.
Use of OxyContin, invented in 1995, was fueled by an aggressive marketing campaign that led to it becoming the most widely prescribed opioid. Though prescriptions for the drug started to decline in 2010, it still garnered more than $2 billion in sales in 2015, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Purdue pleaded guilty in 2007 to a felony charge of misleading regulators about OxyContin's potential for abuse and paid a fine of $600 million, although a whistleblower says the company continued its deceptive sales tactics after that date. In June of this year, the company laid off its entire sales team.
About 48,000 people died from opioid overdoses last year, according to the CDC. Since 2013, a total of more than 170,000 people have died from overdosing on opioids, including heroin.
A Purdue spokesman declined to answer questions about the patent, calling the FT report "a story built on speculation."