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The Pregabalin Story: How Northwestern University transformed a $681,764 grant into a fortune of good

For those battling fibromyalgia, a disease with no known cure, pregabalin has been described as a “wonder drug,” the antidote to swelling feelings of hopelessness. Up to 40 percent of fibromyalgia sufferers treated with pregabalin reported at least a 30 percent reduction in the severity of their chronic pain, the equivalent of 6.1 QALYs and a welcome counter to the condition’s harsh grip.

As a mother, Angela Rich had prayed she would avoid such emotions.

Her son, Jordan, had a life brimming with promise and ambitious plans: a graduate degree in computer science, global travels, professional success.

Slowly, however, those plans disintegrated amid stifling neck pain that limited Jordan’s ability to work and concentrate. The pain eventually consumed his entire body, draining his energy, enthusiasm and independence. He moved back into his mother’s New Hampshire home and relied on Social Security as his future darkened.

 “As a parent, it was so devastating to see,” Rich confides. “Jordan was right at the peak of his life with so much ahead of him.”

In early 2017, Jordan’s doctor at Dartmouth–Hitchcock Medical Center prescribed a potential remedy for the chronic pain: pregabalin, a medication primarily used to treat nerve disorders and one better known by its trade name, Lyrica.

Almost immediately, Rich says, Jordan “took a 180-degree turn.” The pain lightened and Jordan, 32, reclaimed his life, resuming exercise, beginning new professional projects and embracing a more promising future.

“It helped his physical body and brightened his mind,” Rich says. “Now, we’re all moving forward with so much more hope and energy.”

Consider Rich’s story another win for pregabalin, the drug discovered by Northwestern University chemistry professor Richard Silverman and visiting colleague Ryszard Andruszkiewicz nearly three decades ago.

First spurred by a $681,764 grant from the National Institutes of Health in 1987, pregabalin has touched millions of lives since its 2005 marketplace debut, delivering relief to individuals around the globe while simultaneously creating a perpetual ripple effect that has driven new research and collaborations, sparked economic development and propelled spirited academic opportunities.

Improving quality of life

Over the last dozen years, more than 9 million people in the U.S. alone have used pregabalin, many capturing a reprieve from pain and adding quality-adjusted life years (QALY) – healthcare terminology that speaks to the quality and quantity of life lived – to their existence.

Consider fibromyalgia, the most prevalent condition for which pregabalin is prescribed. Effecting upwards of 5 percent of the adult population, fibromyalgia’s chronic pain often prompts sleeping troubles, memory problems, depression and anxiety. As a result, work hours drop 50-75 percent and an estimated 20 percent of sufferers lose their jobs with just as many filing unemployment claims.

For those battling fibromyalgia, a disease with no known cure, pregabalin has been described as a “wonder drug,” the antidote to swelling feelings of hopelessness. Up to 40 percent of fibromyalgia sufferers treated with pregabalin reported at least a 30 percent reduction in the severity of their chronic pain, the equivalent of 6.1 QALYs and a welcome counter to the condition’s harsh grip.

Beyond fibromyalgia, pregabalin has helped individual patients – and their caregivers like Rich – battle other troubling afflictions and discover a renewed quality of life:

  • In two studies, 71-80 percent of patients taking pregabalin for pain associated with diabetes reported a decrease in the severity of their chronic pain.
  • More than 60 percent of patients prescribed pregabalin for the treatment of pain associated with shingles saw a reduction in the severity of their pain.
  • In patients for whom first-line medications had failed to control their frequent seizures, pregabalin increased the number of seizure-free days from an average of 138 to 162 days per year.
  • Nearly 60 percent of patients receiving pregabalin for the treatment of pain associated with spinal cord injuries reported reduced pain.

Pregabalin’s clinical effectiveness has then advanced the drug’s standing as one of the world’s top-selling pharmaceuticals. In 2016, in fact, Lyrica generated more than $5 billion in revenue for Pfizer.

Beyond the prescription pad            

Pregabalin’s market success has had a profound impact at Northwestern, where Pfizer royalties are responsible for about 18 percent of the University’s endowment. That capital has cultivated new realities for students, staff and faculty, extending the impact of pregabalin’s discovery in a diverse array of directions from the sciences and the humanities to campus life and the classroom experience.

The endowment, for instance, helped Northwestern award $160 million in financial aid to undergraduates in the 2016-2017 academic year alone, while the funds also back grants for low-income students and unpaid internship programs that increase access to valuable learning opportunities.

The endowment has also supported capital improvements around the school’s Evanston campus, including renovations to the Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts and campus residential halls as well as the construction of new buildings, including collaboration-minded spaces such as the Kellogg School of Management’s Global Hub and the Richard and Barbara Silverman Hall for Molecular Therapeutics and Diagnostics.

The improved facilities, meanwhile, have better positioned Northwestern to continue its pursuit of cutting-edge discovery, enhancing the University’s ability to land top graduate students and pioneering faculty – 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry winner Sir Fraser Stoddart and MacArthur Fellow William Dichtel being two prominent examples – who have heightened the University’s research, scholarship and instruction.

In allocating a large portion of the Lyrica money toward research, Northwestern faculty across academic fields have been able to tout full health insurance subsidies to prospective graduate students and invest in resources to advance early-stage projects, an effort that has pushed the University to consistent year-over-year gains in federal research funding and encouraged fresh approaches to global issues ranging from healthcare to education.

In so many ways and to so many people around the world, pregabalin’s discovery in a Northwestern chemistry lab has produced an ever-growing ripple effect that continues to redefine realities, impact lives and drive more optimistic futures in tangible, vital ways.

Not a bad return to society from a $681,764 investment from the NIH.

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