Founded in 1896 by Fritz-Hoffmann La Roche, Roche is the largest biotech company in the world and a leader in cancer treatments, diagnostic tools, and pharmaceutical products.
As a successful healthcare company, Roche began by making thyroid preparations and then moved on to produce and market Sirolin in 1898, an orange flavored non-prescription cough medication containing its own active ingredient Thiocol, which remained on the market for over 60 years. After crisis struck during World War II, Roche rebounded with an increase in vitamin production and sales, and in 1928, began heavily investing in the US market.
Between the 1950s and 1960s, Roche developed and marketed a wide range of products, from cancer chemotherapy medications, to antidepressants, to a class of benzodiazepine drugs that could provide sedation without the drowsiness. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Roche expanded into the diagnostic market and began its involvement in biomedical research. Today a leader in both the pharmaceutical and diagnostic fields, Roche is also leading the charge in biotechnology and moving toward personalized healthcare for the future.
As a diverse pharmaceutical company, Roche markets innovative cancer treatments, medications for metabolic and central nervous system disorders, viral infections, and inflammatory diseases. In March 2009, Roche acquired Genentech. Today, within the United States, Roche’s products are marketed by Genentech.
Failure Breeds Success
As a multibillion dollar company with a net worth of around $250 billion, according to Reuters, Roche’s Chief Executive Officer Severin Schwan prefers to celebrate the company’s failures instead of its successes, as this practice can encourage risk-taking and creativity. Success often comes on the heels of failure. About nine out of every 10 drugs that are developed and tested fail. This means that there are inevitably going to be more failures than successes, and it may take many tries to get even one good drug successfully through drug trials and into production.
In 2014 alone, a drug for lung cancer, MetMAb, and one for schizophrenia, bitopertin, both failed. An experimental drug for Alzheimer’s proved unsuccessful in 2014 as well, and the late-stage study was discontinued as a result. With the drug Kadcyla also not proving effective in breast cancer trails, stock in Roche dropped 5 percent in late 2014, Fortune publishes.
Successful cancer drugs Avastin, Rituxan, and Herceptin collectively bring in about $21 billion each year; however, their patent protections are set to expire at the end of the decade. The follow-up drug for Avastin took a hit in 2016 when it failed to make it through an investigational therapy against metastatic colorectal cancer, per Reuters. When patents expire, other drug manufacturers can recreate biosimilar products, meaning that Roche and other pharmaceutical companies always need to stay one step ahead of the competition and continue to come up with new and cutting-edge compounds. Patents are transient and do not last forever, basically giving a company a few years to hold a corner of the market until something new and better is discovered and developed, or the patent runs out and generic and similar products flood the market.
Roche has several more non-cancer drugs in the pipeline, and any one of them may become multibillion dollar products if they are successful.
Roche’s Major Medications
Many of the successful drugs developed by Roche and Genentech that are distributed in the United States are cancer treatments. These products include BioOncology medications, such as:
- Rituxan (rituximab)*: approved to treat several types of blood cancer and also rheumatoid arthritis
- Avastin (bevacizumab)*: a first-line treatment for metastatic colorectal cancer that has also proven beneficial in treating advanced cervical, lung, kidney, breast, and ovarian cancers as well as a type of brain tumor, glioblastoma
- Herceptin (trastuzumab)*: a breast cancer drug specifically designed for HER2+ breast cancer treatment as well as HER2+ metastatic stomach cancer and cancer of the gastro-oesophageal junction
- Gazyva (obinutuzumab): cancer drug for previously untreated and chronic lymphocytic leukemia
- Kadcyla (ado-trastuzumab): drug to treat HER2+ metastatic breast cancer
* These medications were the top three bestselling cancer drugs in 2015, per the journal Pharmaceutical-Technology.com.
Roche and Genentech also produce ophthalmology and immunology drugs, primary care and metabolism medications, virology drugs, and other products. A popular virology product, Tamiflu (oseltamivir phosphate) is an FDA-approved prescription medication to treat the influenza virus within the first few days (48 hours) of experiencing symptoms. It works as a flu prevention and antivirus medication that attacks the flu virus at its source to minimize the potentially life-threatening and severe side effects of the illness.
Rise of Benzodiazepine Medications and Role of Roche
In 1960, Roche scientist Dr. Leo Sternbach marketed the first benzodiazepine tranquilizer, Librium (chlordiazepoxide), which was quickly followed by Valium (diazepam) in 1963. These drugs helped to shape the face of medicine today, and their impact is still felt. Studies published by JAMA Psychiatry in 2008 indicated that over 5 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 80 took at least one benzodiazepine medication and around a quarter of these people took long-acting benzodiazepines.
Librium and Valium were touted as “wonder drugs” and heavily marketed for all sorts of ailments in the early years of their production and distribution. The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) publishes that Librium and Valium were initially aggressively marketed to help with all kinds of life issues, ranging from menopause to nerves, tension, irritability, problems at work and home, marital issues, and even juvenile delinquency. These pharmaceutical products were to strengthen gender expectations, such as make men more productive at work and authoritative at home while helping women to be more effective housewives and mothers. The side effects of these drugs were downplayed, and they became household names as chemical answers for everyday ills.
Potential Hazards of Benzos: Abuse, Dependence, and Addiction
Benzodiazepine medications increase levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. GABA is a kind of natural tranquilizer that helps to decrease anxiety and slow down heart rate, blood pressure, and lower body temperature, minimizing the stress response. Both Librium and Valium were and are prescribed to treat anxiety disorders.
In 1975, Klonopin (clonazepam) was developed by Roche as a benzodiazepine medication designed to treat epilepsy, a seizure disorder. Benzodiazepines dampen overactive nerves, central nervous system functions, and brain activity, which can help to manage convulsions, decrease muscle tension, and produce a calming effect. Taken as directed, benzodiazepine medications can be effective and beneficial. However, when taken in high doses or outside of the bounds of a legitimate prescription, benzodiazepine drugs can enhance levels of dopamine in the brain – a natural chemical that increases pleasure. The calming and euphoric effects of these drugs make them a potential target for abuse. In fact, around 2 million Americans were considered to be currently abusing prescription tranquilizer medications at the time of the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH).
Benzodiazepine drugs are considered to be habit-forming; thus, they are not meant to be taken on a long-term basis. Prescribing information for Valium released by the FDA specifically warns individuals against taking the drug long-term.
When taken regularly, the brain and body can build up a tolerance to benzodiazepines. A person will then need to take more of the drug to keep feeling its effects. As more and more of these medications are taken, the brain may struggle to regulate levels of dopamine and GABA without the drugs. Drug dependence may set in. Addiction often follows drug dependence as it can become difficult to control drug use, and individuals may feel as if they “need” the drug to stay balanced. Compulsive drug use may result, and work production and interpersonal relationships can suffer.
Valium, Klonopin, Librium, and other benzodiazepine drugs can cause a difficult withdrawal syndrome if they are stopped abruptly after drug dependence has formed. Levels of GABA, which have been suppressed by the drugs, can spring back suddenly, leading to tremors, restlessness, irritability, anxiety, muscle tension and pain, insomnia, sweating, panic attacks, heart palpitations, high blood pressure, nausea and vomiting, headache, loss of appetite, mental confusion and cognitive issues, and memory problems. Low levels of dopamine can contribute to depressed moods during withdrawal as well.
It can take some time for the brain to reestablish a normal balance of these brain chemicals without the interference of a benzo, and for this reason, much of the time, individuals are weaned off them slowly during a medical detox program. Interestingly, benzodiazepines are often used during medical detox to manage withdrawal symptoms from other drugs or alcohol. Long-acting benzos can be helpful during a tapering schedule when they are used on a short-term basis, under close professional supervision.
Addiction involving a benzodiazepine drug requires specialized treatment beyond just detox. It is often treated with a combination of pharmaceutical, supportive, and therapeutic methods as part of a complete addiction treatment program.
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