“(T)he drug industry is gearing up for an assault on autism.”
Thus declared an article in last week’s Business Week, a fascinating and well-reported look into the pharmaceutical industry’s efforts – and financial stake – in bringing to market a drug for autism spectrum disorders.
Autism appears in the news daily, in journals of medicine and therapy, in legal and educational publications, in policy briefs. But here it was in Business Week, between the stock quotes and a running analysis on Kraft Foods’ potential hostile takeover of Cadbury.
As we’ve seen with everything from high cholesterol to erectile dysfunction, if there’s a pill to be popped, the money isn’t far behind. And the market for autism is a potential bonanza for drug manufacturers.
Diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder rose by more than half from 2002 to 2006, according to the CDC, and national studies released in the past four months alone have pegged the number of affected children at 1 in 91, in October, and 1 in 110, in December.
Reporter Ellen Gibson also points out that, because autism is most often diagnosed in young children, there is a near-lifetime market for therapies — which means big dollars for pharmaceutical companies.
One decade from now there will be seven times as many autistics entering the adult-services sector as there are today. The disorder already costs the U.S. about $35 billion per year for special education, medical care, and assisted living. If the drug industry can devise better treatments, families and society will find a way to pay.
There is no F.D.A.-approved drug to treat autism itself, though billions are spent each year on medications to treat some of its symptoms, like anxiety, depression, seizures and obsessive-compulsive behavior.
I spoke with Peter Bell, an executive vice president at Autism Speaks, the nation’s largest autism advocacy group. He says many people affected by more severe forms of autism would welcome a pharmaceutical approach, though he also pointed to the success of early intervention programs like occupational and cognitive therapy.
“Many, many families are awaiting the day that there are better treatments,” Bell said. “Early intervention (has shown) promising results … and developing medication that can have similar types of results is something that many people are interested in.”
I’m not criticizing the search for an autism drug – neither the drug companies financial interest nor the perhaps unrealistic hopes of a “magic bullet” from those affected by autism. Far from it. In my time at this magazine, I’ve met many families of children with autism. In some of the more severe cases, they need all the help they can get.
But the “by the numbers” approach this article took was refreshing, and long overdue. For all the attention paid to it, autism remains largely an emotional issue — two sides screaming at each other about vaccinations, doctors perplexed by a disease that only gets more complicated the more we know about, and parents everywhere alarmed by studies showing diagnoses on the rise. Every now and then, it’s good to turn down the heat, take a step back, and look at issues like this from a new angle.
Kudos to Gibson and Business Week.