Dexfenfluramine, a prescription treatment for obesity approved April 29
by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, results from an effort that
began more than 20 years ago by a husband and wife team in a laboratory
at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The FDA action is a noteworthy example of how the long-standing
partnership between research universities and the federal government
produces benefits for the public. The history of the project also
underscores the value of basic research and the importance of the
university-government partnership in projects with distant time
Among the benefits that flow from the dexfenfluramine partnership
are a new treatment for a life-threatening problem, an economic stimulus
by virtue of a start-up company and the educational development of the
many graduate students and post-doctoral fellows who worked on the
problem at MIT, many of whom now hold faculty and research positions at
universities or in industry.
The investigations that led to the FDA approval were begun with
support from the National Institutes of Health in the early 1970s by
Judith Wurtman, PhD, and Professor Richard J. Wurtman, MD, both of the
MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.
Much of their work was located at MIT's Clinical Research Center
(CRC), also NIH supported. The facility, which for many years has been
directed by Professor Wurtman, is the only CRC in the nation not located
at a medical school.
The discovery that dexfenfluramine curbs carbohydrate craving led
to a "use" patent being issued to MIT in 1980, but MIT was unable to
find a company in America interested in developing the discovery into a
treatment product. "The industry, in general, saw obesity as only a
cosmetic concern or a problem of will power," Dr. Wurtman said. Facing a
roadblock, MIT in 1981 licensed Laboratory Servier of France to market
dexfenfluramine for obesity. Servier had discovered fenfluramine, a
mixture of right- and left-handed fenfluramine molecules, several years
before and was marketing it in Europe for other uses. However, Servier
had no U.S. branch, and when it was unsuccessful in attempts to find an
American company to market dexfenfluramine for obesity, MIT (in 1988)
started Interneuron Pharmaceuticals, Inc., of Lexington, Mass., with the
Wurtmans as co-founders. Interneuron holds a sublicense to use the
technology generated at MIT to produce and market dexfenfluramine as an
obesity treatment. Interneuron in turn sublicensed Wyeth-Ayerst Company,
a branch of American Home Products, to do the bulk of the marketing.
Interneuron's success in gaining FDA approval for the treatment has
spurred other companies to work on the development of obesity
treatments, and these efforts constitute a further boost to the economy.
Interneuron is one of 45 biotechnology companies in the United
States that have been founded or co-founded by MIT alumni or faculty, or
have licensed technology patented by MIT. A recently published MIT study
found that these companies employ nearly 10,000 people and produce
aggregate annual revenues of $3 billion, almost a quarter of the total
annual revenues ($12.7 billion) of U. S. biotechnology companies.