Kentucky judge’s order to unseal secret OxyContin records is putting the spotlight on a wealthy, publicity-averse doctor whose testimony about the marketing of the addictive pain pill is the most prized document in the court files.
Dr. Richard Sackler, a board member and past president of Purdue Pharma, belongs to the family that controls the privately held company, which many blame for helping spark the nation’s ongoing opioid crisis. He was deposed last year by the Kentucky attorney general’s office as part of a state lawsuit alleging that Purdue illegally marketed the potent opioid painkiller OxyContin.
What Sackler said in that deposition is the subject of extraordinary interest because it is believed to be the first time a member of the Sackler family has been questioned under oath about OxyContin marketing and because of the central role Richard Sackler played at the company over three decades.
He began working for the company as assistant to the president in 1971 and was named president in 1999 before becoming cochairman of the board in 2003. During his time at Purdue, he oversaw the research department that developed products like OxyContin and managed the sales and marketing unit. His name appears on several company patents.
In 2001, as reports of OxyContin abuse spread across the country, Richard Blumenthal, then the Connecticut attorney general and now a US senator, wrote directly to Sackler urging him to “completely overhaul and reform” Purdue’s marketing of OxyContin. The Blumenthal exchange is a topic likely to have been discussed during Sackler’s deposition. Sackler may also have been asked what he and other executives knew about the addictive properties of OxyContin and of any efforts by sales staff to downplay those when pushing doctors to prescribe the powerful opioid.
The deposition is one of several sealed documents that a Kentucky judge on Wednesday ordered to be released to the public at the request of STAT. Purdue said it will appeal the ruling, and the documents are being withheld pending the outcome of an appeal.
Richard Sackler, 71, moves among elite circles of scientists, researchers, and investors and rarely speaks at public events. Even photographs of him are difficult to find. The Sackler family, in general, has avoided public discussion of OxyContin or the drug’s role in helping hook Americans on opioids. The Purdue website makes little mention of Richard Sackler or other family members.
All of the company’s profits — totaling billions of dollars alone from OxyContin — go to Sackler family trusts and entities. Nine members of the family are on the Purdue board. The family name has been highlighted and celebrated in the world of philanthropy, where the extended Sackler family has donated hundreds of millions of dollars. Museums, hospitals, and other institutions across the world carry the Sackler name as a result. These include the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London; the Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Museum, and the Sackler School of Medicine at Tel Aviv University in Israel.
Richard Sackler trained to be a doctor but detoured from that profession to work at the family business. His father, Raymond, was one of three brothers who founded Purdue in 1952. Among the children of the three siblings, Richard Sackler appears to have had the most direct involvement in operating the Stamford, Conn.-based company.
Sackler graduated from New York University School of Medicine in 1971 and is licensed to practice medicine in New York and Connecticut. His Connecticut license lists him as a physician and surgeon, although there is little public information about the extent that he practiced medicine. He did his postgraduate training at Hartford Hospital in the internal medicine unit. At one time, he was a board member of the American Medical Association.
He is an advisor and benefactor to several elite universities. At Yale University, where he and his brother endowed the Richard and Jonathan Sackler Professorship in Medicine, Sackler has served on leadership boards. He is listed as a member of the Board of Overseers for the Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, which houses the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences. He is an advisor to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology cancer research center and has a long affiliation with the Rockefeller University genetics lab as an adjunct professor.
He is on the scientific advisory board of Verastem, a company developing cancer treatments, along with several prominent researchers from Harvard, Yale, MIT, and elsewhere.
Recently, he teamed up with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and other well-known investors to fund Silk Therapeutics, a Massachusetts-based biotech that has patented a silk protein it uses in a skin-care line and that plans to expand the business to medical applications. Sackler made the investment through his family’s New York-based investment fund, called Summer Road, operated by his son David.