Convenient honesty and Zoloft

I’ve taken this post from CL Psych – I haven’t re-written it in any way as the job has already been done and he’s done it so well.

I must say I’m amazed that drug companies such as Pfizer think they can get away with tactics like this.

Read on:

Recently, a study was published which cast doubt on the efficacy of sertraline (Zoloft) for PTSD, finding that the drug was no better than a placebo.

The kicker is that the patent has expired for Zoloft, which is why the data are now flowing more freely. I’ll make the case here that data were buried until they would no longer hurt sales to any meaningful extent, at which point data were published, at least partially as a public relations move to show just how “honest” the companies are with sharing both positive and negative results with the psychiatric community.

The Research: The latest study, which appears in the May 2007 Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, showed no benefit for drug over a 12-week period. Placebo tended to outperform Zoloft on the majority of outcome measures, though the differences were of a small and statistically insignificant degree. Patients were significantly more likely to drop out of treatment on Zoloft. It was unclear if there were any serious adverse events (e.g., suicide attempts, notable aggression, etc.) because the article did not mention them at all. Patients started this study between May 1994 and September 1996. The original draft of the study was received by the journal in March 2006. Nearly 10 years passed between study completion and writing up the data for publication.

Two prior studies found positive results found positive results for Zoloft and were published quickly, while these negative results languished until the Zoloft patent had expired. One earlier positive study did not list the dates during which the study occurred, but it seems clear that it was rushed to publication much quicker than the negative study. Another positive study was conducted between May 1996 and June 1997 and was published in 2000. It’s quite obvious why the positive studies were rushed to press and the negative study languished, is it not?

Do keep in mind that the magnitude of positive effect for Zoloft over placebo, even in the positive studies, was small to moderate. When even the positive news for antidepressants in treating PTSD show only modest improvement relative to placebo, one should tread cautiously.

Change of Heart: Drug companies have been criticized widely for failing to disclose clinical trial data (1, 2). In an effort to shore up the support of the medical community and the public at large, what could possibly make more sense than publishing negative trial results? Gee, look at how honest we are – we share the good news and the bad news! Of course, when the positive results are published as quickly as possible and the negative results are published after a 10 year delay, well after the negative results can pose any threat to corporate profits, I’m not impressed by their newfound dedication to transparency.

Note: If you are a journalist, this is the kind of story that would merit a broad audience. The plot is pretty simple to follow and it reeks of corporate malfeasance, a subject that is not new to Pfizer and its former cash cow antidepressant.

There was a comment on CL Psych’s blog about this post noting that “It’s also possible that “dissing” the old one [Zoloft] helps the sales of a newer (patented and therefore more profitable) alternative.”

So much for Pfizer and transparency.

What price honesty?


More on Glaxo and Avandia

This editorial from the New York Times:

Ignoring the Warnings, Again?
The latest findings on Avandia, a top-selling diabetes drug, raise concerns both about its safety and about the way the manufacturer and the Food and Drug Administration have responded to signs of danger. It would be rash to make definitive judgments until the F.D.A. completes a detailed analysis. But the handling of this case bears disturbing resemblances to the Vioxx debacle, in which early warning signs were ignored by its manufacturer until the evidence of serious harm became inescapable and the drug was pulled from the market.

Avandia was approved for sale in 1999 based on studies showing that it could lower blood glucose levels in patients suffering from Type 2 diabetes, also known as adult-onset diabetes. The assumption was that the drug could alleviate some of the most damaging effects of the disease, such as heart attacks and other cardiovascular ailments. But a paper just published in The New England Journal of Medicine suggests that Avandia may instead increase the risk of a heart attack by 43 percent and perhaps the risk of cardiovascular deaths as well.

The study — an analysis of the combined results of 42 previous studies that compared people who took the drug with people who did not — is not definitive, and the absolute risk to any given patient is small. But the study points to a risk that could potentially harm thousands of patients a year. Its lead author was Steven Nissen, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic, who blew the whistle on the cardiovascular risks of Vioxx, which adds to the sense of déjà vu.

What’s most troubling is the possibility that early warning signs were not adequately heeded.

Seven years ago a leading diabetes doctor warned the F.D.A. of “a worrisome trend in cardiovascular deaths,” two years later a safety monitoring group within the agency expressed concern over cases of heart failure in patients taking the drug. In late 2005 and again in August 2006 the drug’s manufacturer — GlaxoSmithKline — informed the F.D.A. that its own combined analysis of various studies showed a 31 percent increase in adverse cardiovascular events. But the company also cited studies that it said showed no evidence of harm, and the F.D.A. concluded the findings were too mixed to take immediate regulatory action.

Now, prodded by Dr. Nissen’s article, the agency has issued a safety alert, is completing its own safety analysis and will convene a panel of experts to review the data. The best hope for a definitive answer may lie in a clinical trial that won’t finish monitoring all enrolled patients until late next year.

If the verdict goes against Avandia, the F.D.A. and Glaxo will have a lot to explain. Congress will need to probe hard to determine what risks the agency and the manufacturer were aware of and what they did — or didn’t do — to mitigate them.

Catch up on Glaxo and Avandia here and here.

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