Pharma company finds new marketing tactic in soap operas

"General Hospital," the longest-running soap opera in the U.S., partnered with pharma company Incyte to raise awareness about an extremely rare bone marrow cancer. However, the partnership raises ethical questions, according to an article in JAMA — Incyte owns the only FDA-approved drug product that targets the underlying genetic cause of the disease.


This year, "General Hospital" advanced a plot line in which a main character was diagnosed as having polycythemia vera, an uncommon cancer with an incidence of two in 100,000 people.

The show explains PV is a myeloproliferative neoplasm that can be treated with anticoagulation and phlebotomy. The character becomes exasperated when she learns she will likely have to continue these treatments for the rest of her life.

"This protocol sounds like you are treating the symptoms of this cancer; how do we beat it?" she says.

The JAMA article authors Sham Mailankody, MD, and Vinay Prasad, MD, call attention to this particular dialogue, which they said could muddy the lines between advertising to raise disease awareness and direct-to-consumer marketing. Because Incyte manufactures the only drug targeting PV at a genetic level, the dialogue could be seen as a way to influence sales, according to the article.

"The comments of the character on the soap opera expressing dissatisfaction with phlebotomy or treating just the 'symptoms' may constitute subtle promotion of ruxolitinib," the article said. "Although treating the underlying mutation is attractive, the clinical benefit to patients, particularly those with early disease, remains speculative."

One way the plot line could influence ruxolitinib sales is causing viewers to get tested for the genetic mutation, Dr. Prasad told Vox. When organizations raise awareness for conditions for which only one approved drug is available, awareness efforts can actually boost the sales of a specific drug.

"[The 'General Hospital' plot] is a way to drum up market share. If you get all these people who watch the show concerned about this disease, if they all go get tested, [you'll find more patients]," Dr. Prasad said.

Currently, the Food and Drug Administration regulates direct-to-consumer marketing of pharmaceutical products, but it doesn't regulate advertisements or marketing material related to disease awareness.  

So far, the partnership between "General Hospital" and Incyte appears to be unique. "Writing a [rare disease] into a main character plot on a daytime soap opera to our knowledge is unprecedented," the JAMA article said. 


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