Some observers say they see a familiar pattern in the aggressive marketing of an unproved addiction treatment regimen called Prometa: founder Terren Peizer similarly hyped an anti-AIDS drug, Immunitin, in the 1990s, but the drug never made it to market.
MSNBC reported Nov. 1 that Peizer's Hythiam Corp. is marketing the $12,000-$15,000 Prometa regimen to governments and insurers as a treatment for methamphetamine, cocaine, and alcohol addiction. Small communities hard-hit by meth are seen as an especially ripe market.
Critics, however, say that Prometa's claimed effectiveness is backed by little other than anecdotes. “The marketing is way ahead of the science,” said Lori Karan, a researcher at the Drug Dependence Research Laboratory at the University of California San Francisco. “It preys on the needs of desperate patients, sets unreasonable hopes and expectations and takes advantage of scarce economic resources.”
Peter Banys, director of addiction programs at the VA Medical Center in San Francisco, added, “I would never recommend that someone spend $15,000 on this with the current state of data (and) I think it's improper to spend public money on this product at this time.”
The Prometa regimen consists of administration of three prescription drugs, none of which have been approved for addiction treatment by the FDA. The company is now conducting clinical research on the mix, but has gone ahead with marketing Prometa — including with ads featuring the late comedian Chris Farley, who died of an overdose.
Study results may not be ready until 2008. “Counties don't care about double-blind placebo-controlled data,” said Peizer. “What's interesting about Prometa is that out in the field — in the counties, justice systems, private centers — the clinical relevance is being shown daily.” Hythiam claims that Prometa produces an abstinence rate of 60-80 percent among the 1,000-plus people who have undergone the treatment.
Fulton County, Ga., Pierce County, Wash., and Gary, Ind., are among the local communities that have adopted or tested Prometa. Hythiam is marketing the treatment at anti-drug conferences in communities where meth has become a major problem. Terree Schmidt-Whelan, director of the Pierce County Alliance, a nonprofit treatment center in Tacoma, Wash., called the results of Prometa with hardcore meth addicts “phenomenal.”
“I've been in this field for 30 years, and to see people change their lives in a week, and so dramatically, it's just wonderful,” she said.
Peizer is a former junk-bond salesman who worked for Michael Milken; his past investments included the company that makes Candie's shoes, a firm that went bankrupt after marketing a automobile tire it claimed would not go flat, and a successful computer company that bought the assets of Cray Research, the famous supercomputer company.
Peizer's past statements about Immunitin, the ill-fated anti-AIDS drug, sound similar to his claims about Prometa. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me. We have something special,” he told reporters in 1998.
Peizer owns 35 percent of Hythiam, where stock prices have risen more than 60 percent in three months.