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Who says art and science don't mix? The dangerous dependency on prescription opioids is spreading far beyond the communities and clinics in the US and other places treating hundreds of thousands of people burdened by addiction. 

Policymakers and patients are turning to the courts to seek damages against Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, a drug accused of fuelling opioid addiction. Now the art world is increasingly debating the role of the Sackler family, which includes members whose philanthropic fortune derives from Purdue.

Purdue and the Sacklers deny wrongdoing and stress wider factors behind the opioid crisis, including the use of illegal medicines not prescribed by doctors. But this week they paid $270m to support research and treatment of addicts in Oklahoma, and face over 1,000 lawsuits from dozens of US states including one just filed in New York.

The Sackler Trust in the UK this week suspended its cultural and education donations, after Tate and the National Portrait Gallery were among the institutions to say they would not accept further gifts. The US artist Nan Goldin, herself previously addicted to opioids for pain relief, has led a series of "guerilla actions” including a "die-in" at the Guggenheim, with more likely ahead.

If such actions help spark a deeper debate about the origins of money channelled into philanthropy, they should also serve to raise the concerns to a broader audience on the underlying issue of addiction and spark wider debate over the need for better and more innovative approaches to pain prevention and treatment.

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Three questions

Mark Sullivan, founder and managing director of Medicines Development for Global Health.

What is Medicines Development for Global Health?

We are an Australian non-profit founded in 2005 to develop affordable medicines and vaccines for the people who need them most. We have been interested in tackling scabies, a mite that is still common in aboriginal communities. I thought it was wrong. Health inequality bothers me.

What progress have you made?

In looking for potential compounds, we came across Moxidectin, which is a stellar compound with a long half-life [in the body]. It received FDA approval last year for onchocerciasis and gave us a Priority Review Voucher [which can be sold to other drug developers to accelerate regulatory approval]. We will continue to research Moxidectin’s applications including for scabies, soil-transmitted helminths and lymphatic filariasis.

How do you fund your work?

We have received a couple of grants, and we hope we can sell Moxidectin at a higher price in richer countries for treatment of scabies to help generate a double bottom line [combining financial gain with social good]. We will sell our voucher and use some of the proceeds to pay back support from the Global Health Investment Fund.


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