Based on data from the World Health Organization taken in 2011, there are more than 12,400 diseases, disorders, and ailments in the world that could affect you at any point, making our ongoing survival a combination of luck and skill.
We can't do a whole lot to change our luck, but the skill component consists of the evolutionary improvement of our immune system through adaptation as well as an extra boost provided over the last century by pharmaceutical advances. But even with our improved immune system and the aid of pharmaceutical products, it doesn't stop ailments from hitting us from time to time -- from something as simple as a cold, to other more worrisome medical conditions.
The condition 80% of Americans will suffer from during their lifetime
One condition that's not often thought of as serious, but that can lead to debilitating problems, is back pain.
According to the American Chiropractic Association, experts have estimated that back problems will affect 80% of American adults as some point in their lifetime. What's more, on an annual basis, about half of all working Americans will experience back pain symptoms, with 31 million Americans experiencing low back pain at any given time. It's the leading cause for people missing work, and second only to upper-respiratory infections when it comes to why people visit their doctor.
It's also incredibly costly from a medical and economic standpoint. Americans spend approximately $50 billion each year to treat back pain, and this doesn't even count the economic cost of the lost work hours caused by adults missing their jobs because of back pain.
The problem with back pain is that it can come from such a variety of sources, and pinpointing its origins (and thus preventing recurrences) can be extremely difficult. Back pain can originate from serious problems such as kidney stones or kidney infections, it can be a side effect of obesity, arthritis or poor posture, or it can even be the result of bending over to pick something up. The variety of causes for back pain is one reason doctors can spend so much time diagnosing and treating back pain patients.
Biopharmaceutical companies step to the plate
But, with this ailment comes one gigantic opportunity for biopharmaceutical companies to step up to the plate and devise medicines capable of efficiently dealing with patients' back pain concerns so they can continue on with their normal activities.
In terms of current therapies to treat back pain, you'll find that over-the-counter medications are by far the most commonly recommended therapy, although prescription therapies for more severe and chronic back pain do exist.
In addition to the multitude of common ailments they treat, OTC medicines such as Johnson & Johnson's (NYSE:JNJ) Tylenol and Pfizer's (NYSE:PFE) Advil are commonly recommended back pain relievers. Advil is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug that's targeted as a pain relief product to audiences suffering from back pain, as well as other ailments such as minor arthritis pain, muscle ache, and toothache. Tylenol is an acetaminophen-based product that works to block pain messages sent out from your brain in order to relieve pain. With Advil sales totaling close to $500 million in the U.S. in 2013, this OTC brand could continue to be the go-to treatment for back pain sufferers.
For those with chronic or severe back pain, there are prescription products available. For example, in Oct. 2013, Zogenix (NASDAQ:ZGNX) announced the approval of Zohydro ER, an extended-release hydrocodone capsule without acetaminophen. To be clear, Zohydro ER is prescribed for severe pain when other paths of treatment have been attempted and failed, and it's targeted at more ailments than just back pain. However, in instances where back pain can be debilitating, Zohydro ER could be prescribed by physicians.
It's worth noting that just this past week, Pernix Therapeutics (NASDAQ:PTX) agreed to purchase the Zohydro ER franchise from Zogenix for $100 million (including $30 million in cash) at closing, and another $283.5 million in potential sales and regulatory milestones. Pernix's pockets are a bit deeper than Zogenix's, so chances are it will have a better chance of maximizing this pain-reducer's long-term potential and possible patient pool.
The next generation of back pain relief
In addition to existing therapies, biopharmaceutical companies are working on a host of new therapies that could help chronic pain sufferers, including those dealing with back pain.
Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals (NYSE:MNK) completed a phase 3 study involving MNK-155 last year, which is its oral formulation of hydrocodone and acetaminophen designed to be a long-lasting treatment for moderate to severe acute pain.
Currently under review by the Food and Drug Administration, MNK-155 met its primary endpoint of an improved pain score versus the placebo within the first 48 hours during its late-stage study, and it could be a solution for some chronic back pain sufferers who are in need of rapid, but long-lasting prescription pain relief.
Another idea that shouldn't be written off is the potential of cannabinoids derived from the cannabis plant to potentially help chronic back pain sufferers. To be up-front, there aren't any clinical-stage studies under way at the moment from any major pharmaceutical companies examining the effects of marijuana or cannabinoids on back pain. However, an ongoing phase 3 study by GW Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:GWPH) that's examining the effectiveness of Sativex in treating cancer pain could set the stage for GW to look at other forms of pain management. To be fair, though, its first of three cancer pain studies didn't hit its primary endpoint.
Regardless of how biopharmaceutical companies attack back pain, the key point is in understanding that it's still a relatively unmet condition. We need better ways to diagnose back pain, and we need longer lasting and more effective long-term treatments in order to get back pain sufferers back on their feet and enjoying life. I look forward to continuing innovation within the pharmaceutical sector, and as someone who sits far too often and is prone to a back muscle tweak now and then, I hope new therapeutic options aren't too far out.