HEALTH

Enthusiasm’s pitfalls

Morton Shulman hard-sells an Alzheimer’s drug

NORA UNDERWOOD October 5 1992
HEALTH

Enthusiasm’s pitfalls

Morton Shulman hard-sells an Alzheimer’s drug

NORA UNDERWOOD October 5 1992

Enthusiasm’s pitfalls

HEALTH

Morton Shulman hard-sells an Alzheimer’s drug

Nearing his 67 th birthday in April this year, Morton Shulman could look back on a colorful career—as a physician, chief coroner of Ontario, provincial politician, successful investor and bestselling author (Anyone Can Make a Million). But in 1983, Shulman was stricken by Parkinson’s disease, a disorder that causes patients to progressively lose control over their bodies’ movements. With characteristic flair, Shulman managed to turn the debilitating disease to his advantage. He discovered a little-known European drug that he says has dramatically eased his Parkinson’s symptoms, then imported and successfully marketed the drug, called Eldepryl, in North America. Last year, Shulman’s Toronto-based company, Deprenyl Research Ltd., added another drug to its inventory. It began selling Alzene, used to treat Alzheimer’s disease, in Canada and in the United States. But now concerns about Alzene’s medical value, and the way it was being marketed in the United States, have caused the value of Deprenyl’s stock price to plunge.

The value of Deprenyl shares on North American stock markets fell sharply in late August when an article in The Wall Street

Journal questioned the therapeutic value of Alzene. Deprenyl Research—like many other biomedical stocks that were also suffering— traded at a peak of $23 Vá in March, but fell by about $2 a share to about $7 Vá after the article’s publication. The share price took another tumble in mid-September, to $5Vi after the Philadelphia-based drug firm SmithKline Beecham Corp. announced that it was pulling out of a joint venture involving Deprenyl and another company. The aim had been to develop a drug called One-Alpha D2 for the treatment and prevention of osteoporosis, a degenerative bone condition.

Shulman’s business grew out of his own agonizing medical plight. Four years after Shulman was diagnosed as having Parkinson’s disease, which afflicts more than 70,000 Canadians, Shulman said that he was so distraught that his doctor told him about a drug from Hungary that Parkinson’s victims were using in Europe. Shulman said that within a few days of taking a sample brought to him by a friend, he was feeling well. Subsequently, he bought the Canadian rights to the drug and began selling it to doctors who obtained approval from Health and Welfare Canada to prescribe it

to patients with conditions for which no other remedy was available. In 1990, Health and Welfare officially approved Eldepryl as an adjunct to another Parkinson’s drug, and it is currently used by about 15,000 Canadian Parkinson’s patients.

Shulman’s more recent drug product, Alzene, was developed by an Israeli psychologist, Shlomo Yehuda, who found that a mixture of two purified fatty acids found in vegetable oils improved the learning abilities of animals. In trials involving Alzheimer’s patients in Israel, Yehuda said that 70 per cent of those using Alzene responded dramatically. Yehuda sold the world rights to Alzene to Miami-based Ivax Corp., and early in 1991, Deprenyl Research obtained Canadian rights for the compound from Ivax. Because Alzene has not been approved for general use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Shulman’s firm began distributing Alzene in the United States under a policy that allows unlicensed drugs to be sold to patients with life-threatening conditions.

While it fights for official blessing, Deprenyl Research has had to modify its operating procedures in the United States. Company president Dr. Martin Barkin said that at the company’s request a U.S. lawyer checked Deprenyl’s marketing methods and criticized the mailings that the company sent to American physicians with information about Alzene. As a result, said Barkin, the firm stopped the letters.

But that has not stopped some industry observers from suggesting that Shulman, who has a reputation as an aggressive salesman, may have become a liability to his own firm. Said a Toronto stock-market analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity: “Maybe the best thing that could happen is that Morty resigns. In many ways, he does this company a disservice because of his promotional orientation.” Shulman’s son, Geoffrey, 38, who is cochairman of Deprenyl Research and president of Deprenyl USA Inc., is believed to be his father’s chosen successor as chairman. Said Michael Jams, a biomedical analyst for Montreal-based Dlouhy Investments Inc.: “I think his son can temper his enthusiasms and present a more traditional management.”

And Jams maintained that Deprenyl Research still faces a promising future. “The long-term prospects for Deprenyl stock are better than many people think,” said Jams, “simply because they are developing some products that appear to have a lot of potential.” Among those is ALA-Photodynamic Therapy, an experimental compound that is showing early signs of helping in the treatment of skin cancer.

For his part, Barkin attributed some of Deprenyl’s problems to the unfavorable report in The Wall Street Journal. And Barkin said that the Journal interview may have been the last one that Shulman will give for some time, to avoid any possible misinterpretation of his enthusiasm for Alzene. “He is a colorful figure in Canadian history,” said Barkin. “For him, even illness is an opportunity.”

NORA UNDERWOOD