Korlym: How an abortion pill turned out to be a treatment for a rare disease

Even though the $550 yellow pills sold as Korlym have a controversial origin as the abortion pill, Leslie Edwin said they “gave me life.”

The 40-year-old Georgia resident lives with Cushing’s syndrome, a potentially deadly condition that causes high levels of the hormone cortisol to wreak havoc on a body. When first diagnosed, she said, she gained about 100 pounds, her blood sugars were “out of control,” and she suffered acne, the inability to sleep and constant anxiety.

“I wouldn’t leave the house,” Edwin said of her first bout with the condition. “I quit my job after a certain point. I just couldn’t keep being in front of people.”

That’s when Edwin endured surgeries, including one to remove her pituitary gland. She went into remission, but then, in 2016, her weight shot up 30 pounds and the anxious feelings returned. Her doctors prescribed Korlym.

The drug’s active ingredient is mifepristone, once called RU-486 and better known as the abortion pill because it causes a miscarriage when taken early in a pregnancy. Nearly two decades ago, Danco Laboratories won approval to market Mifeprex in the United States as the abortion drug, with tight restrictions on use. Corcept Therapeutics, a Silicon Valley-based drug company, began marketing Korlym six years ago as a specialty drug for about 10,000 rare-disease patients such as Edwin.

The difference in price between Korlym and Mifeprex is striking, even though the ingredients are the same: One 200-milligram pill to prompt an abortion costs about $80. In contrast, a 300-milligram pill prescribed for Cushing’s runs about $550 before discounts. (Patients wanting an abortion take only one pill. People with Cushing’s often take up to three pills a day for months or years.)

Joseph Belanoff, chief executive of the drug’s maker, Corcept, said Korlym’s average cost per patient is $180,000 annually and concedes that “we have an expensive drug. There’s no getting around that.” But, he said, he believes Corcept has a “social contract” to take care of patients and pledged that any patient who is prescribed Korlym will get it regardless of insurance coverage or costs.

The story of Korlym highlights how America’s drug development system can turn an old drug into a new one that treats relatively few — but often very desperate — patients.

When the Food and Drug Administration approved Korlym in 2012, it was designated as an orphan drug, giving Corcept seven years of market exclusivity as well as other economic incentives. Congress approved orphan drug incentives to encourage the development of medicines for rare diseases that affect fewer than 200,000 patients. Since the drug’s approval, Korlym’s price has risen about 150 percent, and last year the company’s revenue nearly doubled to $159.2 million and it reported a net income of $129.1 million. (Korlym is the company’s only product, and it treats about 1,000 patients in the United States.)

Belanoff said the profits from Korlym pay for the company’s past spending on the drug’s research and development as well as its effort to create new drugs. The company recently reported an encouraging Phase 2 trial update on Korlym’s successor, relacorilant, a drug that could treat Cushing’s without the side effects for some women of endometrial thickening and vaginal bleeding that can occur with Korlym.

The company’s pipeline is also full of potential oncology drugs that hold the promise of using molecules to influence the cortisol receptors, with wide-ranging effects in the body. Korlym in combination with another drug is being tested for the treatment of metastatic triple-negative breast cancer, which tends to be more aggressive than other types of breast cancer. And relacorilant is in the very early stages of testing to treat castration-resistant prostate cancer.

While many of the second-generation drugs are not related to Korlym structurally, Korlym did “provide the funding. . . . If there had not been orphan-drug pricing and the [Orphan Drug] Act, you would have to look for a different way to develop those drugs,” Belanoff said.

Korlym came to market in 2012 with an average wholesale price of $223.20 per pill before discounts, according to the health-care technology firm Connecture. By December 2017, each pill had an average wholesale price of $549.60 before any discounts or rebates were negotiated for patients.

Teva Pharmaceutical Industries recently announced it had filed an application to produce a generic version of the drug. Teva declined to comment for this report.

A ‘pioneering substance’

Cushing’s syndrome happens when the body produces too much cortisol, which normally helps keep the cardiovascular system functioning well and allows the body to turn proteins, carbohydrates and fats into energy. But too much cortisol can be destructive. It can cause cognitive difficulties, depression, fatigue, high blood pressure, bone loss and, in some cases, Type 2 diabetes. Those affected by the syndrome can develop a fatty hump between their shoulders and a rounded face. Without treatment, patients can die of a variety of complications, including sepsis after the hormone compromises the immune system.

Mifepristone, the active ingredient in Korlym, helps Cushing’s patients by blocking the body’s ability to process cortisol. It induces an abortion by blocking another of the body’s receptors, for progesterone, which causes the uterine wall to break down and the pregnancy to end.

When the FDA approved Korlym for a specific set of Cushing’s patients, the agency required a “TERMINATION OF PREGNANCY” warning box at the top of the label.

Endocrinologist Constantine Stratakis, scientific director at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, who specializes in treating people with Cushing’s syndrome, calls mifepristone a “pioneering substance” because it “has a lot of crossover” to other receptors in the body.

That means the drug has a lot of potential uses. Belanoff and Alan Schatzberg, a Stanford University psychiatrist and scientist, co-founded Corcept in 1998 to explore whether mifepristone could help treat major depression. In 2002, Schatzberg said the drug “may be the equivalent of shock treatments in a pill.” But clinical trials were not successful.

Social contract

By 2007, Corcept had found another possibility and filed an application to see whether mifepristone might work for Cushing’s patients.

Developing the drug cost about $300 million, according to Belanoff, and involved long-term toxicology tests to ensure that patients could safely take high doses for months or years. Korlym is approved to treat Cushing’s patients who have failed to relieve their symptoms through surgery or do not qualify for surgery, so some patients expect to take it for the rest of their lives while others just a few months.

Most patients are covered by private insurance, Belanoff said, but Medicare and Medicaid pay for the drug as well. According to Medicare Part D data, 52 Korlym patients cost Medicare $2.6 million in 2013. Two years later, 115 beneficiaries filed claims of $11.4 million.

Edwin is on private insurance and describes herself as being in “a really high tax bracket,” yet she never paid more than $25 a month through Corcept’s patient assistance program . She stopped taking the drug last year after her Cushing’s symptoms retreated.

“Across the board, it would be very difficult to find any patient that pays the full price,” said Edwin, who volunteers as president of the nonprofit patient advocacy group Cushing’s Support and Research Foundation.

The small organization, which reported $50,000 in contributions and grants in 2015, notes on its website that Corcept as well as Novartis Oncology provide financial support to the organization. The group’s federal tax filing details that the majority of its expenses go to distributing a quarterly newsletter, contacting members and patients “to promote mission,” and referring patients to doctors.

Specialty drugs such as Korlym often have sky-high price tags and are often distributed through special pharmacy programs. Drug companies commonly work with insurers and patient assistance programs to lower the patient’s out-of-pocket costs.

But for Corcept, the effort to brand the drug as a Cushing’s medication was also important, Belanoff said: “We were starting with a notorious drug.”

“There is a real infrastructure in caring for these patients,” he said. “It is not just like getting your medicine at [a drug store] and figuring out what to do with it.”

Sherwin D’Souza, an internal medicine doctor at St. Luke’s Boise Medical Center in Idaho, prescribed Korlym for the first time last year to Vonda Huddleston, who was uninsured. D’Souza said he knew Corcept would provide financial assistance until Huddleston could get insurance to help pay for surgery to remove a tumor in her adrenal gland that is suspected of causing her high cortisol levels.

Huddleston, though, did not feel well on the drug and gained weight. D’Souza took her off Korlym and scheduled surgery. “I was sort of trying to buy time and treat her conditions,” D’Souza said. “It’s very expensive . . . but they do have a very good program for patients in need of the drug.”

Kaiser Health News

Kaiser Health News is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

Adrenal Gland Lump Led to 5-year-old Developing Cushing’s, Starting Puberty

Non-cancerous adrenal gland tumors can lead to rare cases of Cushing’s syndrome in young children and puberty starting years before it should, a case study of a 5-year-old boy shows.

Removing his right adrenal gland eliminated the problems, the Saudi Arabian researchers said.

Their report dealt with tumors in epithelial cells, which line the surface of many of the body’s structures and cavities.

The research, “Testosterone- and Cortisol-secreting Oncocytic Adrenocortical Adenoma in the Pediatric Age-group,” appeared in the journal Pediatric and Developmental Pathology.

Most tumors in adrenal gland epithelial cells are benign and generate normal levels of hormones. But there are cases when the tumors over-produce steroids and other kinds of hormones, including sex hormones. Sometimes the over-production can lead to Cushing’s syndrome.

The 5-year-old boy’s over-production of adrenal gland hormones led to both symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome and signs that he was starting puberty, the researchers said.

One reason the case was rare is that the average age when Cushing’s develops is 40, doctors say. Another is that epithelial adrenal gland tumors account for only 0.2 percent of all tumors in children, the researchers said.

Signs that the boy was starting puberty began appearing eight months before his parents took him for treatment. Doctors discovered he had the weight gain and rounded face associated with Cushing’s, but a battery of tests detected no other problems. No family members were experiencing the symptoms he was, doctors added.

Biochemical tests showed that the boy had a high level of cortisol in his blood, which doctors were unable to lower with the corticosteroid suppression medication dexamethasone.

Physicians also discovered that the boy had elevated levels of the male hormone testosterone, the cortisol precursor 17-hydroxyprogestrone, the cortisol-releasing hormone adrenocorticotropin, and another male hormone that the adrenal gland produces — dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate

In contrast, doctors discovered a below-normal level of luteinising, a sex hormone that the pituitary gland generates.

Another unusual manifestation of the boy’s condition was that his bone growth was that of a child a year older than he.

Doctors discovered a non-cancerous tumor in his right adrenal gland that they decided to remove. When they did, they discovered no evidence of bleeding, tissue scarring or cell death.

They put the boy on a hydrocortisone supplement, which they reduced over time and finally ended.

Twenty-eight months after the surgery, the boy showed no signs of Cushing’s disease or early puberty. And his weight, cortisol and adrenocorticotropin hormone levels were normal.

“To the best of our knowledge, our patient represents the first male patient” with a benign epithelial-cell adrenal gland tumor “in the pediatric population, with clinical presentation of precocious [early] puberty and Cushing’s syndrome,” the researchers wrote.

“As these tumors are exceptionally rare, reporting of additional cases and investigation of clinicopathological [disease] data are needed for better characterization of these tumors,” they wrote.

From https://cushingsdiseasenews.com/2018/02/16/cushings-syndrome-early-puberty-5-year-old-boy-case-study/

Doctors Use Microwave Therapy on Cushing’s Patient Too Weak to Have Surgery

Microwave therapy improved the Cushing’s syndrome of a woman whose lungs had almost failed, allowing her to have the adrenal surgery needed to control her disease, a case study showed.

Lung infections had led to her near-respiratory failure.

Cushing’s syndrome stems from the pituitary gland producing excessive amounts of adrenocorticotropic hormone. Too much of the hormone leads to the adrenal glands generating excessive amounts of another hormone, cortisol — and that overproduction results in Cushing’s. The disease’s symptoms include increasing obesity, skin problems, muscle weakness, bone loss, fatigue, cognitive difficulties, and an inability to control emotions.

Doctors often remove patients’ adrenal glands to prevent cortisol production. But in this case, the patient was not in good enough condition to have the surgery. So doctors used microwave technology to reduce her cortisol levels to the point where surgeons could operate.

The case study, published in BMJ Case Reports, was titled “Ectopic ACTH syndrome complicated by multiple opportunistic infections treated with percutaneous ablation of the adrenal glands.

Excessive pituitary gland production of adrenocorticotropic hormone is the cause of 80 percent of Cushing’s cases.

In 5 to 10 percent of cases, a tumor in another part of the body also produces the hormone, leading to excessive amounts of it in the body. When a tumor is generating the hormone, the condition is called ectopic ACTH syndrome. The patient in the case study had ACTH syndrome.

The 63-year-old woman had complained to her family doctor about weight gain, headache, weakness, and flushing. When laboratory tests led to her being diagnosed with ectopic ACTH-dependent Cushing’s syndrome, she was admitted to a hospital’s internal medicine department.

Doctors planned surgery to remove her adrenal glands, but two days before the operation was scheduled, respiratory failure sent her to the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit. There, physicians treated her for two infections in her lungs, plus infections in her blood and urinary tract. She experienced serious medical complications while in the Intensive Care Unit.

After a month, she was in good enough condition to leave intensive chair but too frail for surgery. Instead, doctors used microwaves to destroy as much of her adrenal glands as they could.

Within two weeks, her condition was better. She had been unable to leave her hospital bed while in intensive care. After the microwave treatment, she engaged in physiotherapy that led to her being able to use a two-wheeled walker to go short distances. She could also make short excursions outside the hospital with her family.

Six months later she returned to the hospital for surgical removal of her adrenal glands.

There were no complications from the operation, and doctors discharged her two days later. Her cortisol levels have been at acceptable levels since then.

“Our experience demonstrates that percutaneous ablation is a viable alternative in patients with ectopic ACTH syndrome in whom medical therapy has failed and surgical adrenalectomy is not feasible,” the researchers wrote. “Further research comparing the efficacy and complication rates between percutaneous ablation [microwave therapy] and surgical adrenalectomy is needed.” In addition, “research is needed to determine the optimal method of percutaneous intervention,” the team wrote.

From https://cushingsdiseasenews.com/2017/12/01/case-study-shows-microwave-therapy-helped-cushings-patient-who-was-too-frail-for-surgery/

Study Highlights Importance of Clinical Follow-Up in Cushing’s Patients After Adenoma Removal

A rare case of Cushing’s syndrome (CS) in a 17-year-old patient with multiple pituitary adenomas highlights the importance of clinical follow-up in order to determine the best treatment options for patients.

The study, “A rare case of multiple pituitary adenomas in an adolescent Cushing disease presenting as a vertebral compression fracture,” was published in the journal Annals of Pediatric Endocrinology and Metabolism

CS is a very rare disease with an incidence of 0.7-2.4 cases per million, per year. It is caused by exposure to very high levels of the hormone cortisol. In children, the most common symptom is weight gain without height gain. In some rare cases, tumors known as multiple pituitary adenomas (MPAs) appear, and patients have elevated levels of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). Surgical removal through transsphenoidal surgery (TSS) is considered the best treatment, and the first TSS has a success rate of more than 90%.

However, since 15% of patients have a recurrence, ongoing monitoring and follow-up after TSS are important. The importance of this follow-up care is highlighted in a recent case report.

The study described the case of a 17-year-old male adolescent who was 149.5 cm tall (4’9″) and weighed 63.6 kg (140 lbs). The patient was referred to a hospital for the evaluation of a vertebral compression fracture and obesity. Over four years, the patient gained 23 kg (51 lbs) without an increase in height. Despite showing many of the features of CS, this patient had not been previously diagnosed with CS.

He had high levels of ACTH and cortisol, and an MRI suggested the presence of an 8-mm (0.8 cm) micro-adenoma. After TSS, the patient’s morning ACTH and cortisol levels were reduced, and a persistent headache had improved. But there was no reduction in weight.

Three months after the TSS, the patient’s body mass index did not show improvement, and both cortisol and ACTH levels were elevated again. MRI revealed a new 9 mm (0.9 cm) micro-adenoma, which was removed with a second TSS. However, cortisol and ACHT remained elevated after the second surgery, with no evidence of a pituitary tumor in MRI scans.

Researchers recommended additional options, such as total removal of the pituitary gland, radiotherapy, or removal of both adrenal glands, options that the patient and his family declined. He continued to receive treatment for osteoporosis, hypertension, and increased lipid levels.

“In conclusion, we reported the clinical course of Cushing disease with 2 distinct pituitary adenomas. Since there is no consensus as to the best treatment for relapsing or persistent Cushing disease and since only a few cases of MPA among pediatric Cushing disease have been reported, a close followup of tumor status, severity of hypercortisolism, and patients’ perspectives are the major parameters used to determine the best treatment option for each patient. In addition, early recognition and diagnosis of pediatric Cushing disease would lead to earlier recovery, improved growth, and better quality of life,” the researchers wrote.

From https://cushingsdiseasenews.com/2017/10/27/cushings-disease-rare-case-report-highlights-importance-early-diagnosis-follow-up-care/

A 12-year-old boy died from Addison’s disease after the chance of lifesaving treatment was ‘missed’

The death of a 12-year-old boy who was suffering from undiagnosed Addison’s disease was preventable, an inquest heard.

Ryan Lee Morse had been unwell from July 2012, with his parents noticing his skin darkening and him becoming lethargic and losing weight.

His condition worsened over the following months and he died during the early hours of December 8, 2012.

During the time he was unwell, Ryan’s mother, Carol Ann Morse, took him to Abernant Surgery in Abertillery several times.

She said: “Ryan was rarely ill as a child. In June 2012, which was towards the end of Ryan’s first comprehensive school year, I noticed his skin colour changing.

“His skin seemed to be getting darker.”

She said his joint areas, including elbows and knees, were getting darker. Under his eyes, it looked as if he had not slept for a month. I don’t suppose it worried me at the time because it was gradual.”

A post mortem was held on December 12 by Dr E. J. Lazda, a consultant pathologist at University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff who concluded that Ryan died as a result of Addison’s disease.

An inquest into Ryan’s death was held at Newport Coroner’s Court on Thursday.

Dr Yvette Cloette, a consultant paediatrician since 2004, was called during the early hours of December 8, 2012, by a registrar where she was told the details of Ryan’s death.

She said: “Ryan’s parents told me he had been unwell since July.

“It was thought Ryan had been particularly unwell since the Thursday before he passed away. He had to be collected from school that day. On (the) Friday morning, she said he hallucinated. His temperature did settle that afternoon but then he had diarrhoea.

“As his mum was cleaning him, she noticed his genitalia were black.

“I then examined Ryan. At this time I formed the opinion that Ryan may have had Addison’s disease. I didn’t share this with the family at the time because I didn’t have enough evidence.

“I believe that Ryan’s death was preventable. Addison’s is a disease which, once recognised, can be treated.”

She said it was easier to put things together retrospectively, as opposed to when treating an acute illness as a GP.

David Bowen, senior coroner for Gwent, paid tribute to Ryan’s family during the hearing.

“Before summing up, I think it’s right that I pay tribute to the dignity that has been shown by Mrs Morse and her family.

“It can’t have been easy for them to rehear events that took place over five years ago.

“Please accept my belated condolences.”

Mr Bowen told the inquest that Ryan had been fit and well up until July 2012.

“However at about that time, his parents began to notice a gradual change in his skin and a fluctuation in his general health.”

He had been diagnosed with a viral infection and prescribed Paracetamol, he said.

Over the next six to eight weeks, he did not improve.

Mr Bowen said: “Consequently, his mother took him back to the doctor. The GP was more concerned about the rash, it seems to me, than any of the other symptoms.

“He prescribed tablets and cream for that condition.”

Mr Bowen said that during October and November 2012, “Ryan’s health became much more of a concern for his parents.”

He suffered from headaches, pains in his legs, and occasional episodes of projectile vomiting.

On November 7, Mrs Morse took Ryan back to the GP surgery, where she described symptoms to Dr Rudling, who took samples of blood.

On November 21, they returned to receive the blood test results.

The results revealed a “slightly lower than normal” white blood cell count. The inquest heard Ryan was told he was still suffering from a viral infection that had been diagnosed some months earlier.

Mr Bowen said: “It appears that about this time, there was an outbreak of Norovirus or vomiting and sickness in the area that may have confused the diagnosis.”

Mrs Morse said: “I’d been told to bring Ryan back in January so I thought I would just get Christmas out of the way and take him back. I’d been a carer for 9-10 years but my job didn’t give me any insight into what Ryan had.”

On November 29, 2012, Ryan returned to school, but around a week later on December 6 he was so ill that his mum had to collect him early.

The following day, on December 7, Mrs Morse rang Abernant Surgery saying she needed to speak to a doctor.

Between 8.50am and 8.55am, she received a call from Dr Lyndsey Elizabeth Thomas.

Mrs Morse said: “She asked if he’d been given Paracetamol and I explained he wouldn’t take it. She asked what his temperature was like.

“I’d said Ryan was awake (that morning) and talking rubbish.”

The inquest heard Mrs Morse was asked to take Ryan to the surgery, but she said she was unable to.

“She then told me to give Ryan some dissolvable Paracetamol and see how it goes until dinner. She said fetch him up if you need to.”

Dr Lyndsey Elizabeth Thomas said her contact with Ryan was limited to a single telephone conversation with his mother on December 7.

She said: “I considered whether Ryan needed to be seen or admitted to hospital.

“I clearly recall explaining that if she had any concerns or if Ryan’s delirium or temperature didn’t improve in two hours, he would need to be seen, I would be able to go and visit him at the end of the morning surgery if necessary.”

Mrs Morse said she later noticed that her son’s genitals were black.

She rang the surgery and was put her through to Dr Rudling.

Mrs Morse said: “She said ‘it’s all to do with his hormones’. Phone Monday and we’ll fit him in. At this point I didn’t know what to think.

“I was thinking I’ll take him in on Monday and see what they say. There was no more temperature, no more sickness and no more diarrhoea.”

The inquest heard Dr Joanne Louise Rudling, who qualified in 1993, joined Abernant in August 2011.

She said her first contact with Ryan was in November 2012.

On December 7, Dr Rudling said the receptionist took a call from Ryan’s mother while she was in reception.

Dr Rudling said: “I decided to speak to Ryan’s mother in reception there and then.

“She also asked if this could be age related, I said it could be but I would have to examine him first.

“The impression I got was Ryan was improving. His mother was concerned about the darkening of his genitalia.”

Ryan’s father said goodnight around 10.15pm and went to bed. At around 11.10pm Mrs Morse could see Ryan had fallen asleep, and went to sleep herself at around 11.30pm.

She said: “I woke up and saw it was 4.10am and then I looked at Ryan and looking at his chest could see he wasn’t breathing.

“I started to do chest compressions, dialled 999, continued chest compressions until the paramedics arrived. They took over. They told me Ryan had died.”

Mr Bowen said: “This is a rare but natural disease, one which apparently GPs will not normally encounter.

“Unfortunately, neither doctor nor parents thought it necessary to refer Ryan to hospital, where the true nature of his illness may have been diagnosed.”

Recording a narrative conclusion, Mr Bowen said Ryan died of natural causes.

He said: “The opportunity to administer life-saving treatment was missed.”

Speaking after the inquest, Ryan’s sister Christina Morse said: “First of all I would like to thank everyone involved with Ryan and Ryan’s case.

“Today, after five long years, the coroner has come to the conclusion that Ryan’s death was due to natural causes and that Ryan’s death was preventable.”

From http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/boy-died-addisons-disease-after-13687355

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