NEW YORK: For Celgene, the history of its cancer drug Thalomid is a story about overcoming adversity and embracing opportunity.
Celgene this week shared the good news that the drug met its endpoint in clinical trials, and can slow the progression of the blood cancer multiple myeloma.
Bill Gill, the company's director of PR and IR, noted that the drug, know generically as thalidomide, has moved past the days when it was reviled for causing birth defects.
Instead Celgene is hoping to tell the story of how the mistakes learned from thalidomide improved the way that the Food and Drug Administration evaluates drugs for safety. Now the biotech company is trying to reposition the drug as a life-saving agent.
"It's very exciting," Gill said. "I think what's important is that you can learn from the past."
The company is also hoping to leverage the news to promote other products in its pipeline that are similarly promising cancer fighters.
Its recently approved Revlimid belongs to a class of drugs known as IMiDs, which share many of the properties of Thalomid, but have fewer side effects.
Celgene has been "helping people understand the clinical story" behind its products, according to Gill.
"These IMiDs have very promising results," he said. "That is the message we're trying to convey."
Celgene is working with its new AOR Weber Shandwick to communicate about both Revlimid, which received FDA approval last month, as well as Thalomid.
Most news articles about Thalomid discusses its connection to birth defects.
But both Gill and WS' Laura Schoen, president of the agency's global healthcare practice, denied that thalidomide's dark past has shaped the outreach effort.
Thalidomide had been prescribed in the 1950s to treat morning sickness but caused birth defects because it thwarts growth of new blood vessels, or angiogenesis, a property that makes it a promising cancer agent.
"It was so long ago," Schoen said. "It's being marketed [now] for patients with very serious illness, leprosy and possibly cancer. You're not talking about the same target audience of pregnant women in the 1950s."
She added that the media outreach has been "very traditional."
Gill noted that the outreach effort would include a "multi-tiered program" focusing on patients, physicians, advocacy groups, and the financial community.
The company is also stressing that patients must undergo a safety education program before receiving the drug.