OxyContin sales put Purdue's Sackler family on Forbes rich list

The Busches, the Mellons, the Rockefellers--they're some of America's richest families. But one blockbuster pain drug has put a family of pharma-founders ahead of them all in the wealth department.

According to Forbes, the Sacklers--who in 1952 bought a small New York drug manufacturer that would eventually become Purdue Pharma--are worth a "conservative" $14 billion, ranking their fortune at No. 16 on the list of America's largest. And it's all because of OxyContin.

Since arriving on the scene back in 1995, the time-released, supposedly addiction-proof version of the high-strength, high-controversy painkiller has racked up sales estimated at more than $35 billion, Forbes notes. And today, the company's revenues still check in at about $3 billion a year, driven mostly by that product. Separate companies that sell to Asia, Latin America, Canada and Europe bring in a similar haul to Purdue's for the Sacklers.

But Purdue didn't start out as a pain med company. Brothers Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond Sackler initially sold products like laxatives and earwax remover, while Arthur--a medical advertising star--also helped Pfizer ($PFE) earn its name in the prescription drug field and wrote scientific papers that contributed to Valium's rise to stardom.

It was the tweak to generic oxycodone, though, that really put Purdue on the map. The brothers installed a time-release mechanism that spread the drug's effects over a half-day period, deterring abuse and opening up their patient pool. By 2002, sales had reached the $1.5 billion mark, Forbes notes.

Today, like back then, features that can cut the risk of addiction are central to the drugmaker's plans. Last November, it won FDA approval for Hysingla after demonstrating that it could prevent users from abusing it orally and through snorting or injection. That gave it a leg up on fellow all-hydrocodone rival Zohydro, which is still working to snag a label update that boasts abuse-deterrence.

The company has a new formulation of its best-seller, too, but how successful it is at deterring abuse is still in question. Last week, Purdue nixed its supplemental application and canceled a discussion with FDA advisers one week before their scheduled meeting, saying it needs more time to review its data.

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