The US Orphan Drug Act of 1983 characterizes an orphan disease as a rare medical condition that affects a population of fewer than 200,000 people. Rare diseases have various causes— most notably, genetics. However, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) states, “many rare diseases, including infections, some rare cancers, and some autoimmune diseases, are not inherited. While researchers are learning more each year, the exact cause of many rare diseases is still unknown” (NIH, 2017).
The term “orphan disease” resulted from pharmaceutical companies not having the resources to design and scale up formulations to treat these diseases, due to the lack of financial support for such highly specialized programs. The Orphan Drug Act (ODA) allows for the necessary financial backing of pharmaceutical companies to develop treatments for rare diseases (NIH, 2017), giving special status to a drug or biological product (drug) upon request of a sponsor. This status is referred to as orphan designation or orphan status.