Who knew treating “restless leg syndrome” would generate the latest blockbuster drug? The Wall Street Journal Online yesterday reported on how GlaxoSmithKline turned a disease no one had ever heard of into a new $500 million market for one of its old drugs. The article gives a classic case study of just what’s wrong with the pharmaceutical industry:

When drug giant GlaxoSmithKline PLC launched a new medicine for restless-legs syndrome last year, few people had heard of the affliction, and some physicians were skeptical that it even existed.

Today, the drug, Requip, is on track to post sales of $500 million this year, making it one of the fastest-growing drugs in Glaxo’s portfolio.

Behind Requip’s sales boom is Glaxo’s marketing machine, which has persuaded many consumers and physicians to accept restless-legs syndrome, or RLS, as a real condition warranting treatment. Glaxo began its blitz by advertising the disorder to doctors in medical journals months before the company had regulatory approval to begin selling Requip for RLS. Then, it sent specialists to discuss the disease with general practitioners, who usually see RLS sufferers first. It so heavily advertised the drug directly to consumers that some doctors accuse Glaxo of disease mongering.

The article also reveals that Glaxo did not set out to find a treatment for RLS. Instead, Requip was a drug developed to treat Parkinson’s Disease. But in an ever more common twist, Glaxo and other drug companies spend more and more resources on finding new uses for old drugs. After all, why bother trying to invent a cure for cancer when it’s much more profitable repackaging old drugs for new uses? Requip is just one example of this trend–remember this the next time you hear drug companies brag about how “innovative” they are. And now other drug companies are now following Glaxo’s lead and recasting their old drugs as RLS treatments.

The Wall Street Journal Online details Glaxo’s marketing machine in action:

Soon after the FDA approved Requip as an RLS treatment in May 2005, Glaxo hired an army of sleep-disorder specialists and invited general practitioners to dinner at fancy restaurants across the U.S. to hear them speak about Requip, some specialists say.

To accompany this physician blitz, Glaxo began reaching out to consumers through TV ads. It spent $36 million on consumer ads for Requip last year, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus.

Drug companies need to stop the hard sell to doctors and instead leave doctors alone to make decisions based on objective information and the real needs of patients.