When people first hear about RU58841, most are immediately skeptical. Their first thought is that if some pharmaceutical company had actually found a miracle cure for baldness, the company would be heavily marketing it. It would have been pushed through FDA approval and would be widely available from doctors and at pharmacies. The pharmaceutical company would be making vast amounts of money. After all, 70% of men and 40% of women are affected by androgenic alopecia. That’s a lot of customers.
RU58841 was first studied in the 1990s by scientists in France, working for the Roussel-UCLAF Corporation. Initial studies on the compound reported amazing success in treating hair loss in animal models without any side effects. However, in 1995, a huge German company called Hoechst absorbed the entire Roussel-UCLAF company. Hoechst had originally purchased a significant proportion of Roussel-UCLAF back in 1968. By 1994, Hoechst had obtained over 50% of Roussel-UCLAF’s shares, and proceeded to negotiate with the company to buy the rest of it. The Supervisory Board of Roussel-UCLAF agreed to the merger.
Following the absorption, Hoescht and Roussel-UCLAF became part of the Hoescht-Marion-Roussel (HMR) Group, composed of a merger between Hoescht, the German company, the company Marion Merrel Dow, a US company, and of course Roussel-UCLAF, the French pharmaceutical company. As of 1995, HMR became a huge international company focused on pharmaceuticals, agriculture chemicals, and industrial chemicals.
During the restructuring process after the merger, many employees of Hoescht and Roussel-UCLAF lost their jobs. A large number of research projects that Roussel-UCLAF had been working on were simply abandoned. The executives running the new HMR apparently believed that only three areas of pharmaceuticals are profitable, namely drugs that target disorders of the central nervous system, drugs that target cardiovascular disease, and drugs that fight bacterial and viral infections. This mis-guided view of the ailments of human biology led to the simple abandonment of many promising projects in the areas of endocrinology and immunology, including RU58841.
Employees and scientists of Roussel-UCLAF were reportedly quite shocked by the new policies. The bizarre decision to abandon entire areas of research meant that promising treatments for breast cancer, cerebral edema, cirrhosis of the liver, addiction, acne, and, of course, baldness, were simply dumped. At least 65 research projects and 169 pharmaceuticals with great potential to improve human health and quality of life were abandoned for no real reason other than that some executives thought they might not prove profitable enough.
One of the more famous drugs that was dumped during this merger is RU 486, also called mifepristone, the abortion pill. At the time of the creation of HMR, Roussel-UCLAF was manufacturing and selling large amounts of the drug worldwide. After the merger, HMR donated the rights to the drug in the US to the Population Council and to a company called Exelgyn for all non-US uses. Currently, mifepristone is widely used in safe, effective abortions and is also used in emergency contraception. The reason(s) why HMR would be willing to discard such a widely-used and profitable drug are unclear. They may be in part related to religious beliefs held by the then-head of Hoescht. However, the primary reason is the odd decision by the new executives of HMR to simply abandon all endocrinology research under the assumption that endocrinology isn’t profitable enough to bother with.
After the merger, the rights to RU58841 were acquired by a company called ProStrakan. ProStrakan may have changed its name first to HMR-3841 and then to PSK-3841. The company apparently performed some limited research with the drug, including a human trial that was never published. Although the results of the trial were reported to be quite encouraging, the company appears to have abandoned all future research and development of the drug. The rationale for this may be a Morgan Stanley report prepared in 2005. The analyst who wrote the report concluded that the market for the drug was “modest” and therefore it would only be of interest for a small specialized dermatology company. ProStrakan is a fairly large pharmaceutical company that currently markets drugs for pain, nausea, osteoporosis, and cancer. Apparently it simply isn’t interested in developing and marketing a drug that only has a “modest” potential market.
Current Legal Situation
Currently, RU58841 can be legally manufactured and sold as a research chemical by anyone who wants to engage in the practice. Because no one can patent the drug, there is little reason to believe that any pharmaceutical company will want to expend the necessary funds in order to develop the drug and get it approved by the FDA and other regulatory agencies. The profit margin simply isn’t there. The miracle cure for baldness, that belongs on the pharmacy’s shelf, has been abandoned in the pursuit of profits. This not an unusual situation by any means- the World Health Organization estimates that only 37% of known human diseases are being targeted by pharmaceutical companies, entirely due to perceptions about possible profits.