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Thus perturbed, these ''mast cells'' shudder with the molecular equivalent of uncontrollable weeping; they churn out at least 15 different inflammatory molecules, many of which contribute to the allergic reaction.One of those molecules, unleashed instantaneously, is called histamine.After rummaging through a cabinet in the examining room, my new allergist handed me a week's supply of Claritin, also made by Schering-Plough. Claritin had several other distinctions: it was by then the best-selling antihistamine in the United States, indeed the most profitable antihistamine of all time, with annual sales of more than billion.Claritin was, and still is, the most frequently dispensed drug sample in the United States, part of the nearly billion worth of free drug samples that pharmaceutical companies distribute to doctors annually. And it was the most aggressively marketed drug to American consumers.Claritin's journey from lab bench to marketplace was nearly epic in the time it took, the vicissitudes encountered and the plot twists along the way.In June 1980, when Schering filed a patent for the group of chemical compounds that included the drug that would eventually be known as Claritin, the world of drug development was quite different.

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I've been battered by seasonal allergies all my life but relied on family doctors and, more recently, ''primary-care physicians'' for relief.

Schering-Plough has argued that the patent should be extended because the Food and Drug Administration review of Claritin was unusually ''protracted'' (which, in fact, it was). That report prompted me to read through the transcripts of old F. As I learned more about the approval of Claritin, I realized that the biography of this one drug reveals a great deal about why prescription drugs cost so much to bring to market, and also why health-care economists like Uwe E.

To press its case in Washington, the company has paid millions of dollars in political contributions and assembled a high-powered, strange-bedfellows team of lobbyists (including the former senators Howard Baker and Dennis De Concini, the Gore confidant Peter Knight and Linda Daschle, wife of the Senate minority leader, Tom Daschle); it has also encouraged repeated attempts by Congressional supporters to insert language favorable to Schering into legislation at the last instant. Reinhardt of Princeton University argue that we are paying premium prices for new drugs like these without actually knowing if they are better than the drugs they've replaced.

In a kind of a pharmaceutical version of playing catch with Dad, my father and I shared his hay-fever pills when I was growing up.

They were smooth, round yellow tablets, etched with a tiny red corporate symbol that was as delicate as a Chinese ideograph.

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