If you’ve seen Painkiller — Netflix’s fictionalized drama series about the real pharmaceutical company that made prescription opioid OxyContin and the billionaire Sackler family that founded it — you may be wondering what happened to Dr. Curtis Wright, the former FDA examiner who put the federal agency’s seal of approval on OxyContin.
The Netflix series follows the rise and fall of Purdue Pharma from the time it introduced OxyContin to the U.S. prescription drug market in 1996 until former Purdue chairman Richard Sackler was deposed in 2015 in a legal case brought by Kentucky’s attorney general. In the show, Sackler is played by Matthew Broderick; FDA examiner Dr. Curtis Wright is played by Noah Harpster, and much of the story is narrated by a fictional character named Edie Flowers played by Uzo Aduba,\ representing an amalgamation of opioid epidemic whistleblowers.
Between 1999 and 2021, 280,000 people died in the U.S. from prescription opioid overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In 2021, 45 people died every day from a prescription opioid overdose.
The Sackler family have denied any wrongdoing regarding the sale of OxyContin, but, as emphasized in Painkiller, their company Purdue has been widely blamed for starting America’s opioid epidemic with its aggressive sales push on OxyContin that influenced doctors to prescribe the drug for everyday aches and pains rather than end-of-life and cancer pain management, which prescription opioids had previously been reserved for.
In 2007, Purdue pleaded guilty to falsely promoting OxyContin while understating the risk of addiction, including failing to make doctors aware that it was a more potent painkiller than morphine, according to ProPublica.
“I believe we wouldn’t have an opioid epidemic if the FDA had done its job properly,” Dr. Andrew Kolodny, co-director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis University, told the Mississippi Clarion Ledger.
Who Is Dr. Curtis Wright?
Dr. Curtis Wright was the team medical reviewer for the FDA in 1995, according to Time. He was the sole person tasked with deciding whether to give OxyContin FDA approval.
Part of the plot of Painkiller depicts a fictionalized retelling of how Wright approved the drug along with a real statement used OxyContin packaging insert: “Delayed absorption, as provided by OxyContin tablets, is believed to reduce the abuse liability of a drug.”
Despite the claim, neither of the two scientific studies Purdue cited as proof that OxyContin was less addictive than other opioids on the market actually addressed the risk of addiction in prolonged, everyday opioid use, according to a scholarly article in the American Journal of Public Health by Art Van Zee, M.D.
A year after OxyContin was approved, Wright left the FDA and went to work for the pharmaceutical company Adolor before going to work for Purdue in 1998 as the company’s chief medical officer.
In a 2018 deposition, Wright explained the timeline.
“I had been passed over for division director for the third or fourth time, and it was becoming clear to me that I would— that I was—it would be a long time before I was promoted or had any additional responsibilities, and an extremely attractive offer came in from a pharmaceutical firm to be their chief medical officer, and I accepted,” he said.
He also denied ever entertaining job offers from Purdue while he was working for the FDA.
Where Is Dr. Wright Now?
Wright gave a brief interview to Esquire in 2017 in which he defended his work with Purdue and the FDA.
“At the time, it was believed that extended-release formulations were intrinsically less abusable. It came as a rather big shock to everybody — the government and Purdue — that people found ways to grind up, chew up, snort, dissolve, and inject the pills,” he said.
“In the mid-nineties, the very best pain specialists told the medical community they were not prescribing opioids enough. That was not something generated by Purdue — that was not a secret plan, that was not a plot, that was not a clever marketing ploy. Chronic pain is horrible. In the right circumstances, opioid therapy is nothing short of miraculous; you give people their lives back.”
Wright added: “No company in the history of pharmaceuticals has worked harder to try to prevent abuse of their product than Purdue.”
Purdue Pharma filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2019. Dr. Curtis Wright no longer works there and was working as a consultant as of 2018, according to the Clarion Ledger.
Main Image: Noah Harpster as Dr. Curtis Wright in Painkiller. Photo credit: Netflix