Monday, April 15, 2002

Your Attention, Please

NEW YORK - Among children's emotional health issues, perhaps none has stirred more controversy than the use of drugs to treat attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Parents, health professionals, teachers and legislators have raised concerns about such medications--including abuse, harmful side effects and the temptation for school officials to "dope up" any child who acts up in class.

The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) affects between 4% and 12% of school age children, while the National Institute for Mental Health says there is at least one child in every American classroom who needs help dealing with the condition.

Despite the widespread recognition of the effectiveness of ADHD drugs in the context of a comprehensive and well-supervised course of treatment, concerns remain. No surprise, politicians are getting involved in this issue. In June 2001, for example, Connecticut Governor John Rowland signed a bill--passed unanimously in that state's legislature--prohibiting school personnel from directly recommending psychotropic drugs for any child.

The controversy hasn't kept drug companies from entering the field. A June 2001 report from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America listed 14 pediatric psychiatric drugs in the development pipeline. Seven of these drugs were described as attention-deficit treatments.

Jake Nunn, principal with MPM Capital's BioEquities Fund, estimates that the market for ADHD drugs is growing at an 8% to 10% average annual clip and will exceed $1 billion this year.

Among the big drug companies, Eli Lilly (nyse: LLY - news - people ) hopes to grab a piece of the ADHD market. In late October, the Indianapolis-based company filed an new drug application (NDA) with the Food & Drug Administration for atomoxetine, a non-stimulant based ADHD therapy. The NDA review process usually lasts a year and a half.

Beyond countering the "doped-up" image that accompanies stimulant-based drugs, such as Novartis' (nyse: NVS - news - people ) widely-prescribed Ritalin, atomoxetine is long-acting, so children need not visit the nurse for a dose during the day. "Marketing something with less stigma could give a firm a nice boost and bring interesting growth to the category," says Nunn.

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