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.
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.
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 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.