The actor, who died this week at 90, was instrumental in helping pass the Orphan Drug Act in the early 80′s. He used his celebrity as the star of “Quincy,” when it was rare for stars to appear on Capitol Hill.
The problem was that many terrible diseases didn’t afflict enough people to entice pharmaceutical companies to develop treatments. Hence they were ”orphan” diseases. They included Tourette’s syndrome, muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, spina bifida, ALS and many more. The situation was especially tragic because scientists who discovered promising treatments often couldn’t interest drug makers, who didn’t see potential for profit.
The issue of orphan diseases was so obscure that only a single newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, sent a reporter to the hearing (and the Times only did so because a local boy suffering from Tourette’s testified). But the article caught the eye of a Hollywood writer and producer named Maurice Klugman, who himself suffered from a rare cancer and also happened to be Jack Klugman’s brother. Maurice Klugman wrote an episode of “Quincy” about Tourette’s and the orphan drug problem.
To capitalize on the publicity and build momentum for a bill, Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California, the subcommittee chairman, invited Jack Klugman to testify before Congress.
With Klugman’s’ help the Orphan Drug Act of 1982 was passed, but not before it was almost held up in the Senate by Utah Senator Orren Hatch.
In a fit of pique, Jack Klugman hit upon a novel idea. He and his brother wrote a second “Quincy” episode, this one revolving around an orphan drug bill that was being held up by a heartless (fictitious) senator. In the pivotal scene, Quincy confronts the senator in his office and demands that he look out the window. Peering down, the senator sees a huge crowd gathered with signs that read “We Want the Orphan Drug Act” and relents. To shoot the scene, the show’s producers hired 500 extras who really did suffer from rare diseases.
Hatch, too, finally relented. Thanks to Klugman, the Waxman-Hatch Orphan Drug Act became law in 1983. In an ending Hollywood might have scripted, it has been a remarkable success. The FDA has approved more than 300 orphan drugs, with 1,100 more under development. One of the first developed under the law was AZT, the early AIDS treatment. Two years later, Congress expanded the law to include biological and chemical drugs, which helped spur the biotech industry.