This paper examines the history of orphan drug policy, from the emergence of 'orphans' in the American pharmaceutical market in the 1960s, through the debates and agitations that resulted in the passage of the US Orphan Drug Act of 1983, to attempts in the 1990s to prevent abuse of that Act and restore its original intentions. Although an increased number of drugs for rare diseases have since been developed and marketed, the extremely high price of some such drugs is considered a major public health issue internationally. The present paper traces the origins of this issue to the market-based approach to resolving the problem of orphan drugs embodied in the 1983 Act. The paper also makes visible an alternative trajectory that existed for a while in the United Kingdom but was eventually abandoned in order to help the biotechnology industry grow in the context of an increasingly integrated European drug market.
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