THE BIG PITCH: How would you conduct a PR campaign for the newThalidomide drugs?




It is almost impossible to think about Thalidomide without associating

it with the tragic birth defects of the late 1950s and early 1960s. But

that tragedy is now very dated and unlikely to recur as long as

Thalidomide's distribution remains controlled and secure, as it is

currently through the so-called STEPS program. The greater challenge is

the fact that, while the FDA approved Thalidomide initially for the

treatment of leprosy skin sores, a number of clinical studies suggest

that it is a valuable and potentially life-saving therapy for a number

of other serious conditions, including myeloma and various infectious

diseases. So the marketing of Thalidomide calls for at least two

strategies: The first is ultimately obtaining FDA approval for these

indications. The second is continuing to assure the medical community,

regulatory bodies and the public that Thalidomide's distribution

mechanism and treatment protocols are safe enough to ensure that past

mistakes are not repeated.




Because the tragedy occurred so long ago, many are not familiar with the

potentially dangerous side effects of Thalidomide. In order to safely

and responsibly bring this drug to market, the PR program must be built

on two main principles. First, a branded consumer education component is

required to proactively address the appropriate use and contradictions

of the drug. This can be developed with key lessons from other drugs

with similar issues - like Botox, Cytotec and Methotrexate. Second, we

would implement a program to bring "Thalidomiders" to the table with

patient groups who hope to benefit from the drug - like people with

cancer and AIDS - allowing them to enter into a meaningful dialogue and

be partners, not just e-mail adversaries. Corporate responsibility

demands their voices be heard. Only by remembering those devastated by

Thalidomide can we hope to prevent history from repeating itself while

helping those in need.




Thalidomide has been proven an extremely safe and effective anti-cancer

agent. Unfortunately, few people over 40 can erase the images of

children born with phocomelia, or "flipper-like" deformities, whose

mothers unwittingly took the "morning sickness pill" in the late '50s

and early '60s. Moreover, the fact remains that Thalidomide can still be

extremely harmful if taken by women who either are, or may soon, become

pregnant. Throughout its 1997-98 reintroduction to the US market (a

project I worked on), Thalidomide's marketer, Celgene, went to great

lengths in public campaigns to educate both physician and consumer

audiences as to the clinical risks associated with Thalidomide, while

simultaneously presenting valid research results as to the drug's

potential benefits. Further, the company's unprecedented STEPS (System

for Thalidomide Education and Prescribing Safety) program was widely

publicized as an indication of the company's commitment to the safe

distribution of the product. The result was widespread physician/patient

acceptance and correspondingly high product sales/revenue. Regardless of

improvements in the next generation's safety profile, to vary far from

Celgene's fundamental, albeit remarkable, marketing approach would

appear ill-advised.




The approach to marketing an old drug with new use is to be candid -

never avoid its past, but highlight that the amazing results documented

in trials or in actual patient use are too good to ignore. The

pharmaceutical product will overcome dubious associations when marketed

as the miracle answer to treating diseases not normally associated with

its use. To turn a drug like Thalidomide into a positive and potent

course of treatment that brings hope to people with serious cancers such

as multiple myeloma is possible with physician and patient testimony.

Using real people or celebrity patients who have benefited is a simple,

yet powerful direction.

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