Boycott threat forces French company to abandon RU486BMJ 1997; 314 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.314.7088.1145m (Published 19 April 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;314:1145
Pressure by American antiabortion activists has led the French pharmaceutical company Roussel-Uclaf, subsidiary of the German company Hoechst, to abandon production and distribution of mifepristone (RU486), the “abortion pill.”
The company has transferred all patent rights, without charge, to Dr Edouard Sarkiz, one of the pill's developers, who hopes to develop its potential in other therapeutic areas.
Antiabortionists had long threatened to boycott Hoechst and Roussel-Uclaf's products in the United States if the pill was marketed there. A few months ago, Hoechst acquired all shares of Marion Pharmaceuticals and formed a new group, Hoechst-Marion-Roussel, so increasing its share of the US pharmaceutical market from 1% to about 4%. A Hoechst spokeswoman said that the threatened boycott is a risk that the new group cannot afford to take.
Mifepristone, discovered by Professor Etienne Baulieu, was introduced in France in 1987 as a pharmaceutical alternative to surgical abortion.
In 1988, Hoechst, already a majority shareholder of Roussel-Uclaf, asked the French firm to interrupt production, but Claude Evin, then the French minister of health and social affairs, ordered Roussel-Uclaf to continue, saying that the drug was “the moral property of women.”
Currently, about a quarter of French women seeking abortion opt for mifepristone. It is also marketed in Britain and Sweden. It is produced in China, but users have to pay for it, whereas surgical abortion is free.
Roussel-Uclaf has tried to sell the drug to several American firms, but all refused. An offer was made to the World Health Organisation, which did not act on it. In 1993 the American Population Council obtained the right to use it. Now Dr Sarkiz has formed a small non-profit company, Exelgyn, to continue production and distribution of RU486 and to research its potential.
“It is a remarkable French scientific discovery, and it would have been unacceptable to bury it,” said Dr Sarkiz. “We haven't been able to develop other potential therapeutic uses of this molecule. This is what I shall now do.”
Professor Baulieu said: “In a way, the molecule has now been set free, and I hope Dr Sarkiz will be able to give it its chances.”
Until now, it has only been used for voluntary abortion through its action on the uterine mucous membrane. There has also been limited research into its potential as an emergency contraceptive and for treating endometriosis, uterine fibroma, and breast cancer.
Professor Baulieu points out that RU486 also has antiglucocorticoid and immunosuppressive properties, which suggest possible use for treating wounds and burns.
Mifepristone acts on spermatozoa's membrane, and preliminary research by Dr Baulieu suggests that it could possibly be used as a reversible male contraceptive.