Alkermes gets big revenue boost from dark side of opioid use

For years, some drugmakers have raked in big bucks selling controversial opioids. Now some are getting a boost for making drugs that treat the addiction that has come with the U.S.'s liberal use of the painkillers.

One of those is Alkermes, which makes Vivitrol. The drug was approved 10 years ago and had little success as a treatment for alcoholism, Bloomberg reports. But after being approved to treat opioid abuse, sales of the $1,300-a-month drug have grown significantly, up 53% last year to $144.4 million, according to the company's year-end earnings report. While that is small potatoes compared to most drugs, it is big time sales for Dublin-based Alkermes, whose total 2015 revenue was only $628.3 million, with Vivitrol accounting for 23%.

And it looks like Alkermes is set to win additional sales for the drug after President Barack Obama and federal agencies step up efforts to counter what is considered an epidemic of opioid and heroin addiction. The president in February asked Congress for an extra $1.1 billion this year to expand treatments, including expanding treatment options through Medicaid.

Alkermes was in the political mix pushing for additional funding for addiction treatments. Even though the Irish-based drugmaker is small, Bloomberg reports Alkermes spent $4 million on lobbying last year, citing figures from the Center for Responsive Politics. That was up from $2.6 million in 2014 and less than $1 million a year before that. This from a company once criticized for handling the manufacturing of a controversial opioid, Zohydro, even as it sold an antiaddiction drug. It sold its rights to Zohydro ER and other controlled substances last year to Recro Pharma.

"It's gratifying," Chief Executive Officer Richard Pops said about the increasing attention to treating addiction, according to Bloomberg. "We've felt this way for a long time, even though we didn't think there was a whole lot of financial incentive to do so."

Most addicts are treated with methadone or buprenorphine to help wean them off of other drugs. Unlike those drugs, Vivitrol isn't a narcotic but has been shown to curb the desire for an opioid high. It was only used by about 16,000 patients last year, Bloomberg reports, but it has real fans, including some governors and local law enforcement officials who have helped establish more than 100 programs in which addicts get counseling while taking Vivitrol.

One of those fans is Circuit Judge David Tapp in Kentucky, a state with a high rate of opioid abuse. He has sentenced some people who commit crimes related to their addiction to programs where the drug is used. Judge Tapp likes the idea that Vivitrol is not addictive itself. "Nobody steals Vivitrol. Nobody traffics it unless they want to get sober," Tapp told the news service. "From everything I've seen, it's working."

- read the Bloomberg story