01/3/17

Like Footprints in the Sand

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An amazing letter was sent to the president of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) on August 1, 2016 by no less than sixteen well known medical and psychological professionals from around the globe. They are attempting to have an article published in a 2004 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry retracted. Their concern was that a recent analysis of that study found “gross misrepresentations” made in the article with regard to use of citalopram (Celexa) in treating child and adolescent depression. As of the beginning of December of 2016, the original journal article is still available; nor does there seem to have been any response to the letter requesting the retraction. Perhaps the APA hopes that if they simply ignore the issue, it will just go away.

The article was ghostwritten by agents of the manufacturer and seriously misrepresented both the effectiveness and the safety of citalopram in treating child and adolescent depression.

The letter was addressed to Dr. Maria Oquendo, the 2016 President of the APA. The coauthors of the letter expressed concerns with the “gross misrepresentations” made within the 2004 article, “A Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Trial of Citalopram for the Treatment of Major Depression in Children and Adolescents.”

Since the publication of the analysis alleging the problems with the 2004 Celexa article, there were three different attempts to have it retracted. In response to a May 9, 2016 letter, the current editor for the American Journal of Psychiatry refused to retract the original study. Two other attempts, one to the former editor of the American Journal of Psychiatry who accepted the article, received no response. Given the failure of the American Journal of Psychiatry to retract the article, the letter’s authors are concerned that children and adolescents are put at risk of unnecessary harm because well-intentioned physicians who continue to prescribe citalopram to children and adolescents are being misled.

The 2004 citalopram study said it provided evidence that “citalopram produces a statistically and clinically significant reduction in depressive symptoms in children and adolescents.” It was said to be superior to placebo and the adverse events were mild.

In conclusion, citalopram treatment significantly improved depressive symptoms compared with placebo within 1 week in this population of children and adolescents. No serious adverse events were reported, and the rate of discontinuation due to adverse events among citalopram-treated patients was comparable to that of placebo. These findings further support the use of citalopram in children and adolescents suffering from major depression.

Yet there have been a series of lawsuits against Forest Laboratories, the manufacturer of Celexa, because of its serious side effects; and for Forrest’s failure to warn about the risks when using Celexa and other SSRIs. Drugwatch noted that Celexa is the best-selling antidepressant in 13 countries. Yet it has been linked to several congenital birth defects as well as autism. FindLaw noted evidence that Celexa and other antidepressants have been linked to an increased risk of suicidal behavior in patients under the age of 25.

Forest Laboratories also pleaded guilty in a 2010 criminal case for misbranding Celexa for a use not approved by the FDA. “According to the Department of Justice, Forest Pharmaceuticals had illegally promoted Celexa for the treatment of depression in children and adolescents. The company also pleaded guilty to obstructing justice and distributing an unapproved drug.” Forest Pharmaceuticals was fined $150 million.

A class action law suit, Celexa and Lexapro Marketing and Sales Practice Litigation, was brought by plaintiffs who alleged that Forest Laboratories misrepresented the safety and efficacy of Celexa and Lexapro when marketing the drugs for off-label pediatric use. Over 63,000 documents from Forest were deposited in a database maintained by the plaintiff’s attorneys. Jureidini, Amsterdam and McHenry reviewed 750 internal documents from this database in their 2016 article for the International Journal of Risk & Safety in Medicine.

They found that the published article, “A Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Trial of Citalopram for the Treatment of Major Depression in Children and Adolescents,” contained efficacy and safety data that was inconsistent with the protocol criteria. Although the published article concluded citalopram was safe and significantly more efficacious than placebo for children and adolescents, the outcome measures “showed no statistically significant differences between citalopram and placebo.”

Unreported procedural deviations contributed to the claimed statistical significance of the primary outcome and negative secondary outcomes were not reported. Moreover, post hoc measures were introduced; and adverse events were misleadingly analyzed. The Wagner et al. citalopram study failed to mention five citalopram-treated subjects who discontinued treatment due to hypomania, agitation, or akathisia. “None of these potentially dangerous states of over-arousal occurred with placebo.” There were also many more adverse gastrointestinal events for citalopram than placebo. Yet the final report grouped the data in a way that masked the evidence for potential gastrointestinal intolerance.

In conclusion, corporate mischaracterisation of clinical trial results is of concern in psychiatry where outcome measures are more subjective and easily manipulated. Because few industry-sponsored studies gain public scrutiny and even fewer are ever formally retracted, it is important to make these articles transparent to correct the scientific record. It is furthermore imperative to inform the medical community of mischaracterized data that could lead to potential harm to children and adolescents who are vulnerable to the effects of medication on the growing brain and may increase suicidal thinking and behaviour.

STAT News reported the retraction request comes after years of controversy over the extent to which some drug makers massaged clinical studies to broaden their medicines’ market. Four years ago, GlaxoSmithKline paid $3 billion to settle civil and criminal charges of “preparing, publishing, and distributing a misleading journal article” about the use Paxil with children and adolescents. “The pill had not been approved for that use and the study cited by federal authorities had been ghostwritten.” David Healy, John Nardo, and Jon Jureidini, three of the sixteen individuals who submitted the letter to the APA requesting that the 2004 citalopram study be retracted, have been actively involved in critiquing the misrepresentation of Study 329 and attempting to get it retracted as well. See a series of articles Healy has written on this issue here, in the Mad in America archives.

After a running a gauntlet of reviews, Le Noury et al. were able to successfully publish a reanalysis of Study 329 in the British Medical Journal. But getting there wasn’t easy, see: “Restoring Study 329: Letter to BMJ” and “The Troubled Life of Study 329: Consequences of Failure to Retract.” However, the original article, “Efficacy of Paroxetine in the Treatment of Adolescent Major Depression, A Randomized Controlled Trial,” was never retracted by Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (JAACAP).

Hmmm. Perhaps my opening comment that the APA is hoping the request to withdraw the 2004 citlopram article, “A Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Trial of Citalopram for the Treatment of Major Depression in Children and Adolescents,” wasn’t all that smarmy. They could be hoping that it will just fade away like footprints in the sand.

12/23/16

Listening to Antidepressants

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Prozac took the U.S. by storm when the FDA approved it in 1987.  It also had a similarly radical effect on the thinking of a forty year-old psychiatrist named Peter Kramer. In the Introduction of his now classic book, Listening to Prozac, Kramer described how people became “better than well” with Prozac and how they and he began to “listen” to what Prozac told them. Kramer said it “transformed my views about what makes people the way they are.” But even by 1993, when Listening to Prozac was published, the stories of violence and suicide after taking the first SSRI antidepressant were circulating as well.

Toxic Psychiatry by another psychiatrist named Peter Breggin, was published two years earlier and documented reports of suicidal behavior in both the popular press and the professional literature. “Suicidal Behavior Tied to Drug,” was published on February 7, 1991 in The New York Times. The article said two cases of suicidal behavior and fantasies (with no prior history) were reported in The New England Journal of Medicine that same day. Eli Lilly was facing more than 50 lawsuits at the time and of course denied that there was any scientific merit to the claim the medication could prompt suicidal or violent acts. The year before, “Emergence of Intense Suicidal Preoccupation During Fluoxetine Treatment,” was published in the February 1990 issue of The American Journal of Psychiatry. Its abstract read:

Six depressed patients free of recent serious suicidal ideation developed intense, violent suicidal preoccupation after 2-7 weeks of fluoxetine treatment. This state persisted for as little as 3 days to as long as 3 months after discontinuation of fluoxetine. None of these patients had ever experienced a similar state during treatment with any other psychotropic drug.

Breggin also seems to have predicted the rise of what is now called “treatment resistant depression” with SSRIs. He said: “If Prozac can indeed alleviate depression by making more serotonin available in the brain, then with time it may produce incurable depression by making the brain relatively unresponsive to any amount of serotonin.” In Talking Back to Prozac in 1995, Breggin “blew the whistle” on the newer antidepressants and antidepressant-induced violence, suicide and mania. Finally in 2004 the FDA finally required black box warnings to be placed on the newer antidepressants, warning of the potential for the increased risk of suicidal thoughts and behavior in children and adolescents.

Yes, Dr. Kramer did say as far back as Listening to Prozac that the chemical imbalance theory (the amine hypothesis) was at least incomplete and perhaps false. But then Kramer published Against Depression in 2005, arguing that the socio-economic costs of depression were so large, that modern societies should strive to eradicate it as they did with smallpox. On his blog in 2008 he argued that the chemical imbalance theory was prematurely declared dead, even though “the neurotransmitter theory is incomplete and not fully proven.”  He asserted that since 1993 the evidence for it had been steadily growing.

Jonathan Leo and Jeffrey Lacasse did an in depth critique of the evidence Dr. Kramer used to support the chemical imbalance theory. They noted several qualifications used when scientists discuss the biological basis of mood with other scientists. “Yet, in the popular press all these qualifications disappear and instead the public is inundated with declarations about ‘chemical imbalances causing mental illness.’” They said there were two different discussions going on about the theory—a simple, straightforward one in the media and advertisements, but a tenuous nuanced one in scientific circles. In scientific circles, the discussion was about the appropriateness of using the chemical imbalance theory with patients and not so much about the strength of the theory.

In the late 1990s, Irving Kirsch decided to research the placebo effect with the newer (SSRIs and SNRIs) antidepressants. He began with the assumption that there actually was a therapeutic effect with antidepressants, but he wanted to assess the placebo effect: “I was not particularly interested in the drug effect. I assumed that antidepressants were effective.” He was surprised to discover how small the drug effect was. Seventy-five percent of the improvement in the drug group also occurred with people who were given placebo pills with no active ingredient in them.

Critics of his findings said the meta-analysis he and his co-author had done was biased; that they had an unrepresentative sample of clinical trials. So Kirsch and three others replicated the original study with the identical data set used by the pharmaceutical companies for the FDA approval of six of the new generation antidepressants at the time. These six accounted for the bulk of antidepressant prescriptions being written at the time, 2002. “In the data sent to us by the FDA, only 43% of the trials showed a statistically significant benefit of drug over placebo. The remaining 57% were failed or negative trials.” The results here were that 82% of the response to antidepressants was due to the placebo effect.

Kirsch again did a replication in 2008 with a larger number of clinical trials and again found the 82% placebo effect. In both analyses, the mean difference between drug and placebo was less than two points (1.8) on the HAM-D depression scale, used in all the FDA clinical trials for antidepressants at the time. The difference was clinically insignificant. In other words, these miniscule differences were too small to be observable in a normal clinical setting with someone who was depressed. Others, including the FDA, have repeatedly replicated their results. The above history can be found in a 2014 article by Irving Kirsch, “Antidepressants and the Placebo Effect,” or in his 2010 book, The Emperor’s New Drugs. There he speculated:

Antidepressants may be nothing more than active placebos, producing side effects through chemical means and therapeutic effects through psychological means.

Twenty-three years after Listening to Prozac, Peter Kramer published his latest book, Ordinarily Well: The Case for Antidepressants. According to Jonathan Rosen, who wrote “The Assault on Antidepressants” for The Atlantic, Kramer said he believed in the utility of antidepressants, despite their flaws. He not only sought to make a case for antidepressants, he also tried to make a case for psychiatry as “a humanistic science that bridges the impersonal ideals of the laboratory and the pragmatic exigencies of clinical intervention.”

In a book review of Ordinarily Well for The New York Times, Jennifer Senior referred to the original Kirsch research and said Kramer was wary of these studies because they flew in the face of his clinical experience. Indicating that when his own patients asked if their improved mood could be due to a placebo effect, “Dr. Kramer’s answer is an unequivocal no.” And Ordinarily Well attempted to prove his belief. Senior indicated Kramer argued that Kirsch deliberately “’seemed to cull studies in which antidepressants underperformed,’ and treated some drugs as placebos even though they may have had antidepressant effects.” Either Senior or Kramer was unaware of, or failed to mention the above-described replications done by Kirsch and others. She did point out how Kramer used meta-analyses to make his own points, but failed to acknowledge that fact. Another area of concern for Kramer was the mechanism for recruiting subjects for clinical trials.

He is particularly devastating on the subject of recruiting test subjects. One of the most damning chapters features an unnamed facility where antidepressant trials are frequently conducted. Many of the participants are unemployed or underemployed — lonely, dispossessed and eager for the money. Suddenly, they’re getting paid, interacting with others and receiving the careful attention of doctors and nurses. “Even on placebo,” Dr. Kramer writes, “these patients ought to get better.”

There is an indication that evidence-based medicine has some flaws; and that the gold standard of meta-analysis can be undermined by flawed analysis, especially in psychiatric drug research. And there really is a problem with recruiting clinical trials subjects; and sometimes with the methodologies used by researchers in those clinical trials. But remember that if Kramer’s concerns are accepted (and I think they should be), then the newer antidepressants were approved using questionable scientific methods and an unreliable approval process. See “Evidence-Based Treatment … Lacks Evidence.”

If that is the case, where is the protection that FDA approval of pharmaceuticals is supposed to provide? And why aren’t more people pressing for regulatory reform of the FDA clinical trial process? If we accept Kramer’s arguments, we should also acknowledge that the clinical trials used for FDA approval of SSRIs were invalid. Kramer’s rationale for dismissing the evidence for the placebo effect with antidepressants also calls into question the methods used for their approval—and many of the studies afterwards touting their continued effectiveness.

A recent review article by Andrews et al., “Is Serotonin a Downer or an Upper?” challenged the assumptions of the therapeutic effects of SSRIs. “Although the idea that a single neurochemical is the cause of depression is now considered simplistic, the low serotonin hypothesis still lies at the foundation of most research on depression.” The authors noted how many types of depression seem to correspond to higher levels of serotonin, not lower ones. They proposed a radical new way of understanding the role of serotonin in the brain, according to Shannon Peters in, “How Do Antidepressant Really ‘Work’?” They suggest that serotonin coordinates metabolic processes with the storage, mobilization, distribution, production and utilization of energy resources.

Under this theory, there are higher levels of serotonin when there is a need to redistribute limited energy resources. “Serotonin cannot be simply described as an ‘upper’ or a ‘downer’; its symptomatic effects depend on the organism’s state,” write the authors.

When listening to antidepressants, we hear a history of effectiveness that can’t be clearly attributed to the therapeutic effect of the drugs. Expectation or placebo plays a significant role in whether or not these drugs will help an individual “overcome” their depression. Peter Kramer continues to hold on to a narrative that the chemical properties of SSRIs actually do help some depressed individuals, with “little of the benefit coming from the classical placebo effect.” But in debunking the science used to affirm the antidepressant placebo effect, he also calls into question the methods used to approve those same SSRIs in the first place.

What about Peter Breggin? He’s still around and critiquing the use of other classes of psychiatric drugs as well as antidepressants. He was recently the expert witness in a 2016 court case, awarding $11.9 million in a Paxil suicide malpractice case. He has a video series on YouTube, “Simple Truths About Psychiatry,” which is also linked on his website: breggin.com. There is plenty of additional material there to support the ineffectiveness and danger of antidepressants. In 2011, Dr. Breggin was the expert witness in a court case where Prozac was found to be a contributing factor to the murder of a teenager by his friend. “This was the first criminal case in North America where a judge has specifically found that an antidepressant was the cause of a murder.”

There’s more discussion of Irving Kirsch and the placebo effect here on my website. Start with: “Dirty Little Secret” or do a search of the website for his name.

12/13/16

The Vicious Spiral of Suicidality

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A study published in the November 2016 issue of JAMA Psychiatry suggested that patients were at an increased risk of suicide during the three months immediately following their discharge. They were fifteen times more likely to commit suicide than similarly matched patients who were treated for non-mental health issues. Individuals without any outpatient care in the months before their hospitalization were at an even higher risk. Individuals diagnosed with depressive disorders were at the highest risk, followed by those with bipolar disorder and then schizophrenia.

The lead author of the study, Mark Olfson, was interviewed on the JAMA network about the study. He said one of the limitations of the study was it didn’t have the level of detail to get at why depression and depressive disorders were the highest short-term risk of suicide. However, he speculated that since one of the symptoms (diagnostic criteria) for depression was related to suicide, and many individuals are hospitalized because of suicide attempts or suicide risk, this is “probably what conveys their short-term risk of suicide following hospitalization discharge.” He added that effective approaches to suicide risk reduction should involve strengthening a patient’s connectedness, reducing social isolation, and engaging them in outpatient care. In his review of the study for Mad in America, Justin Karter quoted the study authors as saying:

These patterns suggest that complex psychopathologic diagnoses with prominent depressive features, especially among adults who are not strongly tied into a system of care, may pose a particularly high risk. As with many studies of completed suicide, however, the low absolute risk for suicide limits the predictive power of models based on clinical variables. These constraints highlight the critical challenge of predicting suicide among recently discharged inpatients based on readily discernible clinical characteristics.

The association of suicide risk and hospitalization has been evident in previous studies. For example, a 2005 study reported in the Archives of General Psychiatry, found there were two sharp peaks of suicide risk around psychiatric hospitalization. There were during the first week after admission and in the first week after discharge. The length of hospitalization was also a factor, with individuals receiving less than the median length of stay having a significantly higher risk. The study also confirmed previous reports that prior admission to a psychiatric hospital is also associated with a higher risk of suicide.

This study, to our knowledge, is the first to explore how suicide risk differs by diagnosis across the phase of psychiatric hospitalization. We find that affective disorders increased the risk for suicide the strongest across all phases of time since hospitalization compared with other diagnostic groups. We also find that affective and schizophrenia spectrum disorders tend to have a more intensive effect on the risk of suicide, whereas substance abuse disorders have a more prolonged effect on the risk of suicide.

In an article for the website, Speaking of Suicide, Stacey Freedenthal cited the recommendation by David Rudd, a nationally known suicide expert, who recommended initially seeing an individual at least twice in the week after discharge. The elevated risk of suicide after hospitalization was not necessarily related to a premature discharge. Referencing David Rudd, she said:

Instead, suicidal intent is fluid, impossible to predict from one moment to the next, let alone day-to-day. Of course, whatever led to hospitalization in the first place, whether a suicide attempt, mental illness, or some other crisis, places a person at higher risk than normal for suicide.

However, there was a 2014 study reported in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology that found psychiatric admission in the previous year was highly associated with completed suicide. “Furthermore, even individuals who have been in contact with psychiatric treatment but who have not been admitted are at highly increased risk of suicide.” The authors said the relationship was one of association, rather than causation. “People with increasing levels of psychiatric contact are also more severely at risk of dying from suicide.”

An editorial in the same issue by Large and Ryan said that compared to those who had no psychiatric treatment in the previous year, those who received medication were 5.8 times the risk of suicide; those with at most outpatient psychiatric treatment had 8.2 times the risk; patients with emergency department contact without an admission had 27.9 times the risk; and admitted patients had 44.3 times the risk of suicide. These ratios were after controlling for other risk factors.

The strongest risk factors for suicide after discharge were: prior suicide attempts and depressive symptoms. Additional risk factors include: hopelessness, worthlessness, guilt and a family history of suicide. Large and Ryan said they believed it was likely that a proportion of individuals who suicide during or after an admission to hospital do so because of factors inherent in the hospitalization. They argued that such suicides should be considered as “nonsocomial”—acquired in a hospital.

There was a significant positive correlation between a PTSD diagnosis and suicidality in a study by Panagioti, Gooding, and Tarrier. Comorbid major depression was a compounding risk factor. The association of suicidality and PTSD persisted across “studies using different measures of suicidality, current and lifetime PTSD, psychiatric and nonpsychiatric samples, and PTSD populations exposed to different traumas.”  Another study of national suicide rates in 25 European countries concluded that stigma towards persons with mental health problems could influence suicide rates within a country. The authors hypothesized that possible mechanisms could include stigma as a stressor, or social isolation as a result of stigma. Large and Ryan said:

There is now little doubt that suicide is associated with both stigma and trauma in the general community. It is therefore entirely plausible that the stigma and trauma inherent in (particularly involuntary) psychiatric treatment might, in already vulnerable individuals, contribute to some suicides.

So it seems there is a vicious spiral with suicidality. Together, depression and suicidality may lead to hospitalization, which itself is a risk factor for suicide. Hospitalization, particularly when it is involuntary, can lead to stigma and trauma, which exacerbates feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness—-themselves further risk factors in suicide.

How then do we help the chronically depressed and suicidal person? Perhaps the place to start is by not harming them any further. We need to recognize and minimize the potential for stigma and trauma from hospitalization. We need to address feelings of helplessness and worthlessness from very beginning of any contact with a depressed and suicidal person. In Cruel Compassion, as he reflected on how to avoid further harm with chronic mental patients, Thomas Szasz gave the following quote of C.S. Lewis that I think is helpful here.

Of all the tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victim may be the most oppressive. . . . To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level with those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals. . . . For if crime and disease are to be regarded as the same thing, it follows that any state of mind which our masters choose to call “disease” can be treated as a crime and compulsorily cured. . . .Even if the treatment is painful, even if it is life-long, even if it is fatal, that will be only a regrettable accident; the intention was purely therapeutic.

Szasz went on to add:

To help the unwanted Other, we must therefore first relinquish the quest to classify, cure and control him. Having done so, we can try to help him the same way we would try to help any person we respect—asking what he wants and, if his request is acceptable, helping him to attain his goal or accept some compromise.

12/2/16

Pharma and Advertising

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The FDA recently held public hearings on the off-label advertising of approved medications and medical devices on November 9 and 10, 2016. “FDA is engaged in a comprehensive review of its regulations and policies governing firms’ communications about unapproved uses of approved/cleared medical products, and the input from this meeting will inform FDA’s policy development in this area.” There were specific questions asked at the hearing, but the FDA was also interested in “any other pertinent information participants would like to share.” If you weren’t able to be in Maryland for the hearing, electronic or written comments will be accepted until January 9, 2017. A videotape of the hearing will be available for one year afterwards.

Your initial reaction may be one of “Boring!” That is unless you are aware of the crossroads we are approaching with regard to the off-label advertising of medications and medical devices. On March 8, 2016, the FDA made a settlement agreement with the pharmaceutical company Amarin that allows the company to promote its drug Vascepa for off-label use. What is this important breakthrough medication? Vascepa is prescription strength fish oil. This action was the outcome of a struggle between Amarin and the FDA going back several years.

Amarin wanted to widen the population for whom they could recommend Vascepa to include patients with different cardiovascular diseases—patients other than what Vascepa was initially approved to treat. But the FDA ruled against their request. Amarin’s stock price took a nosedive. Concerned with how their investors were reacting, the company fought back by suing the FDA. Then in August of 2015, a judge ruled that Amarin could market its drug to the broader population. He also ruled the company could claim that Vascepa “may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.” This was despite the fact that the FDA had called the claim misleading, as there was “supportive but not conclusive research” to that effect.

Amarin successfully argued that it had a First Amendment right to market its drug for a broader patient group, “despite the lack of regulatory approval and the lack of evidence of an outcomes benefit for patients.” Justin Karter noted how the FDA settlement strikes at the heart of the drug regulatory system in the U.S. Amarin argued that companies should have the right to market their products consistent with what “a judge would consider to be neither false or misleading.” Be clear on what Amarin was saying. A judge, not the FDA, should rule on whether or not the marketing claims by a pharmaceutical company for their product were truthful and not misleading.

Amarin argued that this system is unconstitutional, and that companies should instead be allowed to market their products in any way that a judge would consider to be neither false nor misleading.

Commenting on the FDA settlement agreement in Amrain Pharma v. U.S. Food & Drug Administration, lawyer and mental health advocate Jim Gottstein said he thought that for all practical purposes, the FDA ban against off-label promotion of drug companies was dead. He noted that the ruling in the Amarin case was based upon a 2012 decision in Unites States v. Caronia that reversed a criminal conviction for off-label promotion.

In light of the settlement I think it is fair to ask where things stand with the FDA’s enforcement of its ban against off-label promotion and Department of Justice prosecutions of drug companies for off-label promotion leading to false claims.  I think the ban against off-label promotion is dead for all practical purposes.  The FDA could try and get a different ruling in another circuit and, if successful, ask the Supreme Court to rule, but since it didn’t ask the Supreme Court to take the case in Caronia, it doesn’t seem likely that it has any intention of trying to overturn Caronia. This will give the drug companies free rein for off-label promotion.  Of course, anything that is false or misleading is still grounds for charges, but that is a far harder case to make.

So if this is the supposed future for off-label drug advertising unless there is some radical change by Congress, let’s now take a look at the past—what has been taking place under the existing FDA rules. In his book Saving Normal, Allen Frances published a chart that he called the drug company “hall of shame.” Prepared by Melissa Raven, PhD, it listed the fines and settlements by Pharma companies for off-label promotion, marketing and fraudulent misbranding of 20 well know pharmaceuticals.

Here is a sampling of the companies and their total fines and settlements between 2004 and 2012 recorded in the Saving Normal chart. The fines and settlements listed below combine both civil and criminal cases. Johnson & Johnson ($1.44 billion); GlaxoSmithKline ($3 billion); Abbott ($1.5 billion); Novartis ($422.5 million); Forrest ($313 million); AstraZeneca ($520 million); Pfizer ($2.3 billion); Eli Lily ($1.415 billion); Bristol-Myers Squibb ($515 million); Purdue (almost $635 million). I think it’s clear why Pharma is going after the FDA. The sum total in fines and settlements from the chart was $12.06 billion in fines and settlements between 2004 and 2012.

On March 31, 2016, the nonprofit organization Public Citizen published an updated analysis of all major financial settlements and court judgments between pharmaceutical companies and the federal and state governments. The time period covered by their analysis ran from 1991 through 2015 and included 373 settlements for a total of $35.7 BILLION. Financial penalties have declined sharply since 2013. The most striking decrease occurred with criminal penalties. “For 2012 and 2013 combined, criminal penalties totaled $2.7 billion, but by 2014-2015, the total had fallen to $44 million, a decrease of more than 98%.”

From 1991 through 2015, GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer reached the most settlements—with 31 each— and paid the most in penalties, $7.9 billion and $3.9 billion respectively. Six additional companies, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Abbott, Eli Lilly, Teva, Schering-Plough, Novartis, and AstraZeneca paid more than $1 billion in financial penalties. Six of the above eight were listed in the top 14 pharmaceutical companies by global sales in 2014. Thirty-one companies entered repeat settlements. Pfizer (11), Merck (9), GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis, and Bristol-Myers Squibb (8 each) finalized the most federal settlements. It seems these fines were simply the cost of doing business.

Financial penalties continued to pale in comparison to company profits, with the $35.7 billion in penalties from 1991 through 2015 amounting to only 5% of the $711 billion in net profits made by the 11 largest global drug companies during just 10 of those 25 years (2003-2012). To our knowledge, a parent company has never been excluded from participation in Medicare and Medicaid for illegal activities, which endanger the public health and deplete taxpayer-funded programs. Nor has almost any senior executive been given a jail sentence for leading companies engaged in these illegal activities. Much larger penalties and successful prosecutions of company executives that oversee systemic fraud, including jail sentences if appropriate, are necessary to deter future unlawful behavior. Otherwise, these illegal but profitable activities will continue to be part of companies’ business model.

Since the U.S. approved direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs in 1997, there has been a dramatic increase in spending on pharmaceuticals. A New England Journal of Medicine study by Donohue, Cevasco and Rosenthal in 2007 found that spending on pharmaceutical promotions increased from $11.4 billion in 1996 to $29.9 billion in 2005. This was a 330% increase. Promotion to physicians was still the primary marketing strategy, but spending on direct-to-consumer advertising increased both in absolute terms and as a percentage of pharmaceutical sales.

Becker and Midoun recently published an article that investigated the effects of direct-to-consumer advertising (DTCA) on patient prescription requests in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. Of the 989 articles they initially identified, they read full-text reviews of 69 articles, but only found four that met their inclusion criteria for investigating the consequences of these ads on prescription rates and treatment quality. They conclusion was: “Findings suggest that DTCA requests are typically accommodated, promote higher prescribing volume, and have competing effects on treatment quality.” They called for methodlogically stronger studies to increase the confidence in their conclusions.

Reporting for Mad in America on the study, Justin Karter noted where the U.S. is only one of three countries globally that allows DTCA. He said the pharmaceutical industry spent $3.83 billion on DTCA in 2013 and $4.53 billion in 2014. He also noted that the American Medical Association (here) and the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP) (here) have called for a ban on DTCA. The AMA Board Chair, Patrice Harris, commented that physicians were concerned with the negative impact of DTCA and the role marketing costs play in fueling escalating drug prices. “Direct-to-consumer advertising also inflates demand for new and more expensive drugs, even when these drugs may not be appropriate.” The ASHP approved a new policy at their 2016 meeting that would advocated for Congress to ban DTCA for prescription drugs and medication-containing devices.

Pharmaceutical companies have whittled away at existing FDA regulations that restrict direct-to-consumer advertising. And they seem to be poised to begin an era of DTCA that will massively overshadow what has already taken place under the existing rules. Healthcare organizations representing physicians and pharmacists in the U.S. have publically voiced their opposition to DTCA. Individuals and organizations have an opportunity to voice their concern for this practice, which is implicated in the rising cost of healthcare and medications. Congress also has an opportunity to enact new legislation that would eliminate this predatory marketing practice. But it will have to overcome the horde of lobbyists—more than there are members of Congress—and the $272,000 in campaign donations Pharma spent per member of Congress in 2015.

11/22/16

Antidepressant Misuse Disorder

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Chances are you know someone who is using an antidepressant. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the person you know has a problem with depression. In 2015, Takayanagi et al. published a study in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that: “Among antidepressant users, 69% never met criteria for major depressive disorder (MDD); and 38% never met criteria for MDD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, social phobia, or generalized anxiety disorder in their lifetime.” Their data indicate that antidepressants were commonly used in the absence of “clear evidence-based indications.”

Writing for Mad in America, Justin Karter noted that previous studies revealed antidepressants were being over-prescribed and prescribed off-label. But others countered that these studies underestimated the lifetime prevalence of so-called mental disorders. The Takayanagi et al. study sought to address this criticism by conducting in-depth interviews to estimate whether participants met criteria for “mental disorders” over their lifetime. The study also indicated an individual was more likely to be prescribed an antidepressant if they were a woman, white, reported physical pain or discomfort to their doctor, or had recently visited a mental health care facility.

Another 2015 report by Kanton et al. published in JAMA found that the percentage of Americans on antidepressants increased from 6.8% to 14% between 1999 and 2012. The report’s authors speculated that the increase could in part reflect shifting attitudes regarding depression. Commenting on this report, Justin Karter pointed out how the increase likely includes a large proportion of off-label use of antidepressants. As was noted above, 69% of antidepressant users did not meet the criteria for major depression.

A JAMA study published in May of 2016 by Wong et al. found that 45% of the prescriptions given for antidepressants were to treat anxiety disorders, pain, insomnia and various other conditions. The study, which was done in Quebec Canada, looked at all adult prescriptions written for antidepressants (100,000 patients) between January 1, 2006 and September 30, 2015. Prescriptions for monoamine oxidase inhibitors were excluded. Prescriptions were classified as on or off label depending upon whether the drug was approved by Health Care of Canada or the FDA for the indication noted by September 0f 2015. Physicians prescribed antidepressant off-label for anxiety disorders (18.5%), insomnia (10.2%), pain (6.1%) and panic disorders (4.1%).

An online survey of long-term antidepressant patients by Cartwright et al., published in Patient Preference and Adherence, found that almost 90% reported some degree of improvement, with 30% also saying they had moderate to severe bouts of depression during treatment.  Ten different adverse effects were reported by over 50% of the participants. The five most common were: withdrawal effects (73.5%), sexual dysfunction (71.8%), weight gain (65.3%), feeling emotionally numb (64.5%), and failure to reach orgasm (64.5%). “Between 36% and 57% of respondents experienced these adverse affects at either a moderate or severe level.” Additional adverse effects reported included: agitation (55.1%), feeling not like myself (54.4%), reduced positive feelings (45.6%), caring less about others (36.4%), suicidality (36.0%), and feeling aggressive (31.6%).

Some patients in this study were particularly concerned about severe withdrawal symptoms that undermined their confidence to discontinue should they wish to and therefore limited their choices. In line with this, 45% patients also believed that they had some level of addiction to the antidepressant. Some patients were also critical of the lack of information given by prescribers with regard to adverse effects, including withdrawal symptoms. Some also expressed disappointment or frustration with the perceived lack of support available to them in managing withdrawal.

Limitations of the study include the fact that the data were self-reported and that the study was not a randomized control study—the gold standard methodology for evidence-based medicine. However, there are relatively few long-term outcome studies of antidepressant use.

A 2009 systematic review published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, concluded that long-term outcomes in depression were poor, with no clear relationship between drug treatment and positive outcomes.  The outcomes for non-antidepressant treatment were no worse than those for antidepressant treatment.

Overall 40% to 85% of patients experienced a recurrence during follow-up. Average time to recurrence was around 3.2 years across eight studies that provided data on this outcome. Around 25% of patients achieved a global rating of well or improved at the end of the study and a similar number had a poor outcome marked by multiple recurrences or continuous impairment. Most participants recovered from the index episode, but experienced multiple recurrences.

The August 2016 issue of Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics published a literature review of long-term use of newer generation antidepressants (i.e., SSRIs and SNRIs and others) by Carvalho et al. While many side effects were transient, disappearing after a few weeks, other potentially serious adverse events may persist or occur later. The main adverse events related to using newer antidepressant drugs included the following:

  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Weight gain and metabolic disturbances
  • Genitourinary issues (issues related to the genital or urinary organs)
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Hyponatremia (low sodium level in the blood)
  • Osteoporosis and risk of fractures
  • Bleeding
  • Central nervous system issues
  • Sweating
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Affective disturbances
  • Suicidality
  • Discontinuation syndromes

You can read more information on the above adverse effects and others in the Carvalho et al. review. What follows is a brief discussion of their findings for weight gain and diabetes, bleeding, sleep disturbances, affective disturbances, suicidality, and discontinuation syndromes.

Several studies have shown that long-term use of antidepressants (more than 6 months) is associated with weight gain. Paroxetine (Paxil) may be the worst offender. A population-based study indicated the use of antidepressants could be associated with a higher risk of obesity. The association between antidepressants and diabetes mellitus is inconclusive. Some reports indicate a higher risk; others do not. But a recent review and meta-analysis found that SSRIs were associated with an increased risk of diabetes mellitus.

All SSRIs have been associated with an increased risk of bleeding. “The most likely mechanism responsible for these adverse reactions is a reduction of serotonin reuptake by platelets.” Fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil), and sertraline (Zoloft) have a higher risk of platelet dysfunction than other SSRIs. Veniafaxine (Effexor) and mirtazapine (Remeron) have been associated with an increased risk of bleeding. SSRIs have been associated with a higher risk of bleeding during operations.

Sleep disturbances are one of the hallmark symptoms of depression. However,  studies have shown that SSRIs and Effexor are associated with increased REM sleep latency and an overall reduction in the time spent in REM sleep. These effects are usually associated with the initial period of treatment and may return to baseline after 8 weeks. Remeron and trazodone have been associated with improving sleep. In my clinical experience, trazadone is regularly used off-label to help promote sleep.

Many individuals taking SSRIs report they experience emotional blunting. They say their emotions have been “toned down.” Others say they just don’t care about issues that were significant to them before. “Evidence indicates that these adverse affective manifestations may persist even after the symptoms of depression have improved and can occur in patients of all ages.” Mania or agitation can occur. These response have been said to unveil unrecognized bipolar disorder. But since this can also occur in previously unipolar patients, the mania could be drug-induced. An activation syndrome, where patients experience anxiety, agitation, panic attacks, insomnia, irritability, hostility, aggressiveness and impulsivity can occur.

Carvalho et al. limited the occurrence of these adverse effects to the first three months of treatment. However, psychiatrist Peter Breggin has documented the emergence of agitation and activation with antidepressants in Medication Madness and other writings. Carvalho et al. said using antidepressants could also be associated with the return of depressive symptoms during baseline treatment, and the appearance of new symptoms or paradoxically, exacerbate the baseline clinical picture. The occurrence of paradoxical effects was reported in random control trials with Prozac and Zoloft.

The emergence of suicidality and self-injurious behavior with antidepressant treatment is one of the most debated and controversial risks. Nevertheless, the FDA has required a black box warning regarding the risk of suicidality for children and adolescents using antidepressants since 2014. The incidence of successful and attempted suicide has been frequently underreported in antidepressant RCTs. Carvalho et al. said:

Two recent meta-analyses have not identified a clear increased risk of treatment-emergent suicidality in adult individuals treated with antidepressants in RCTs. Notwithstanding that the use of antidepressants is efficacious for the treatment of MDD in adults, there is no clear evidence for either specific protective effects or increased risk related to suicidality.

Often underappreciated, is the emergence of withdrawal symptoms of varying degrees with treatment discontinuation and/or interruption with almost all SSRIs and SNRIs. These reactions have been described as “discontinuation syndromes” in an attempt to avoid the suggestion of dependence that could effect marketing. A review suggested the dependence and withdrawal with newer antidepressants was comparable to those experienced with benzodiazepines. “Due to the severity and unpredictability of these manifestations, it has been recently suggested that the term ‘discontinuation syndrome’ should be replaced by ‘withdrawal syndrome.’” These symptoms can include:

flu-like symptoms, tremors, tachycardia, shock-like sensations, paresthesia, myalgia, tinnitus, neuralgia, ataxia, vertigo, sexual dysfunction, sleep disturbances, vivid dreams, nausea vomiting, diarrhea, worsening anxiety and mood instability.

In their conclusion, Carvalho et al. said the common belief of fewer side effects with the newer generation antidepressants (especially the SSRIs) only pertains to their safety in overdose. “On the contrary, the long-term use of SSRIs and SNRIs is likely to yield important side effects.” The likelihood of treatment-emergent adverse effects is related to the duration of antidepressant treatment—particularly with weight gain, diabetes, and osteoporsis. Some adverse side effects may persist long after discontinuation of the drug. Particularly following long-term use, antidepressants,

 … may increase the risk of experiencing additional psychopathological (e.g. treatment emergent affective switches and paradoxical symptoms), or medical (e.g. obesity and bleeding) problems that do not necessarily subside after discontinuation of the drug.

This leads to their conclusion that: “The findings of this review suggest that long-term treatment with new generation ADs should be avoided if alternative treatments are available.”

11/11/16

Help the Medicated Military

© Oleg Dudko | 123rf.com

© Oleg Dudko | 123rf.com

A U.S. Air force pilot was assigned to transport a B-1 bomber from near the Persian Gulf to South Dakota. The trip took nineteen hours and crossed nine time zones. Every four hours, he took a “go pill”—a tablet of Dexedrine. After landing, he went out for dinner and drinks with a friend from the base. When they were driving back to the base, he began hitting his friend, saying that “Jack Bauer” had told him they were going to try and kidnap him. He was eventually charged with auto theft, drunk driving and two counts of assault.  But a court martial judge found him not guilty “by reason of mental responsibility.”

 

 

Four military psychiatrists concluded that Burke suffered from “polysubstance-induced delirium” brought on by alcohol, lack of sleep and the 40 milligrams of Dexedrine he was issued by the Air Force.

In her article for the LA Times, Kim Murphy went on to say a growing number of lawyers are blaming the U.S. military’s heavy use of psychotropics for their client’s aberrant behavior and the related health problems. In 2012 the U.S. Army surgeon general indicated there were almost 8% of active duty Army on sedatives and more than 6% using antidepressants. This was an eightfold increase since 2005.

A former military psychologist said: “We have never medicated our troops to the extent we are doing now … And I don’t believe the current increase in suicides and homicides in the military is a coincidence.” An Army pharmacy consultant said the military’s use of prescription drugs is comparable to the civilian world. “It’s not that we’re using them more frequently or any differently.” Grace Jackson, a former Navy staff, psychiatrist said: “The big difference is these are people who have access to loaded weapons, or have responsibility for protecting other individuals who are in harm’s way.”

According to a 2007 review in Military Medicine, the modern Army psychiatrist’s deployment kit will likely contain “nine kinds of antidepressants, benzodiazepines for anxiety, four antipsychotics, two kinds of sleep aids, and drugs for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.” Military doctors believe it would be a mistake to send battalions into combat without these medications, which they see as helping to prevent suicides, calm shattered nerves and help soldiers rest.

Psychiatrist Peter Breggin said that before the Iraq war, soldiers couldn’t go into combat if they were using psychiatric drugs. “You couldn’t even go into the armed services if you used any of these drugs, particularly stimulants,” just 10 or 12 years ago. Now some people are saying psychiatrists won’t approve their deployment unless they take psychiatric drugs.

An Army Pfc. Pleaded guilty to murdering a Taliban commander in Afghanistan. After the death of a good friend, he began hearing a harsh female voice. He was also depressed. He didn’t tell doctors about the voice—only that he was depressed and thinking of suicide. He was prescribed Zoloft for depression and trazodone for sleep. The voices became worse and he began seeing hallucinations of his dead friend. Eventually he walked into the cell of the Taliban commander and shot him in the face. He was eventually sentenced to a ten-year prison term.

Both the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association in a 2010 hearing urged the Army to stay the course on psychotropic drugs.

Military Times reported that many troops are mixing several different kinds of pills—an antidepressant and an antipsychotic to prevent nightmares, an anticonvulsant or anti-epileptic to prevent headaches. And these medications are being prescribed, consumed and swapped in combat zones. Dr. Grace Jackson said: “It’s really a large-scale experiment. We are experimenting with changing people’s cognition and behavior.”

Data obtained from the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) showed the DLA spent $1.1 billion on psychiatric and pain medications from 2001 to 2009. The use of psychiatric medication has increased by 76%, with the use of some drug classes more than doubling. Orders for antipsychotic medications were up over 200%; annual spending more than quadrupled from $4 million to $16 million. Anticonvulsant use increased 70%; spending more than doubled from $16 million to $35 million. Spending on antidepressants decreased from $49 million in 2001 to $41 million in 2009, a drop attributed to cheaper generic versions hitting the market during that same time period.

The Army’s highest-ranking psychiatrist told Congress that 17% of the active-duty troops and as much as 6% of deployed troops are on antidepressants. Doctors and lawmakers are questioning whether the drugs are responsible for the spike in suicides within the military—trend that parallels the increase in psychiatric drug use. Dr. Peter Breggin said there was overwhelming evidence that the newer antidepressants commonly prescribed can cause or worsen suicidality, aggression, and other dangerous mental states. “Imagine causing that in men and women who are heavily armed and under a great deal of stress.” But many military doctors believe the risks are overstated and not fully treating depressed troops would be the greater risk.

Military Times said the Defense Department repeatedly denied its requests for copies of autopsy reports that would show the prevalence of these drugs.

From 2001 to 2009, the Army’s suicide rate increased more than 150 percent, from 9 per 100,000 soldiers to 23 per 100,000. The Marine Corps suicide rate is up about 50 percent, from 16.7 per 100,000 Marines in 2001 to 24 per 100,000 last year. Orders for psychiatric drugs in the analysis rose 76 percent over the same period. Other side effects can include increased irritability, aggressiveness and hostility.

Dr. Peter Breggin published an article in Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry, “Antidepressant-Induced Suicide, Violence, and Mania: Risks for Military Personnel.”  He noted where the activation side effects of newer antidepressant mimicked the symptoms of PTSD, increasing the hazard when they are prescribed to military personnel. He recommended that the military study the relationship between psychiatric drug treatment and suicide as well as random or personal violence. He also recommended that antidepressant be avoided when treating military personnel. See his website for more information on the relationship between antidepressants, suicide and violence in soldiers.

There is a strong probability that the increasing suicide rates among active-duty soldiers are in part caused or exacerbated by the widespread prescription of antidepressant medication. By themselves, these drugs cause a dangerous stimulant-like profile of adverse reactions. These symptoms of activation can combine adversely with similar PTSD symptoms found so commonly in soldiers during and after combat.

In September 28, 2016, US Senator John McCain introduced the Veteran Overmedication Prevention Act (S. 3410), a companion bill to HR 4640, the Veteran Suicide Prevention Act. Psychologist Philip Hickey reported the bills seek to fight against suicide deaths in military personnel by ensuring that accurate information is available on the relationship between suicides and prescription medication. If passed, these bills would bring information currently being withheld from the public on these relationships. A press release from Senator McCain said:

This legislation would authorize an independent review of veterans who died of suicide or a drug overdose over the last five years to ensure doctors develop safe and effective treatment plans for their veteran patients. We have a long way to go to eradicate veteran suicide, but this legislation builds on important efforts to end the tragedy that continues to claim far too many lives far too soon.

“Data suggests that every 65 minutes a veteran takes his or her own life.” One way to address this is by determining if there is any association between suicide and the medical treatments being received by veterans for service-related conditions. Congressman David Jolly said the following in a press release about his sponsorship of the Veteran Suicide Prevention Act:

Specifically, the Veteran Suicide Prevention Act would require the VA to record the total number of veterans who have died by suicide during the past five years, compile a comprehensive list of the medications prescribed to and found in the systems of such veterans at the time of their deaths, and report which Veterans Health Administration facilities have disproportionately high rates of psychiatric drug prescription and suicide among veterans treated at those facilities.  The VA would then be required to submit to Congress a publicly available report on the results of their review, along with their plan of action for improving the safety and well-being of veterans.

As suggested by Philip Hickey, honor the veterans who have served our country by writing your legislators in the Senate and the House in support of these bills:

Senate: S 3410 – Veteran Overmedication Prevention Act

House: HR 4640 – Veteran Suicide Prevention Act

11/1/16

Ketamine Desperation

© Novic | stockfresh.com

© Novic | stockfresh.com

Jeff wants to smile again and know what happiness is like again. He wants to not feel the urge to kill himself again. He has been hospitalized in psychiatric facilities and has taken a variety of antidepressants and mood stabilizers for his bipolar disorder, but nothing worked. He remained employed as a football analyst until the sky fell in on him and he lost his job. “He was suicidal; so overwhelmed with despair, that he couldn’t even leave his house.” He finally found a treatment option at the Ketamine Clinics of Los Angeles. And so goes one of many testimonies of ketamine’s potential as a rapid treatment for depression.

Steven Mandel MD, the President and founder of the Ketamine Clinics of Los Angeles, is an anesthesiologist who uses ketamine to treat patients who are depressed and suicidal. The standard protocol is to give low dose IV infusions of ketamine. It worked for Jeff. He said, “It’s been remarkable.” His wife looked at him and saw the smile on his face and had the biggest smile herself in response. Jeff thought it was immoral to withhold ketamine from the general public. You can watch a four-minute video on Jeff and Dr. Mandel’s treatment here.

Over the last ten to fifteen years, ketamine has been getting a significant amount of research and media attention as a fast-acting treatment for depression. Reporting for The Washington Post, Sara Solovitch quoted Dennis Hartman as saying: “My life will always be divided into the time before that first infusion and the time after.” But the relief is temporary. “Clinical trials at NIMH have found that relapse usually occurs about a week after a single infusion.”  And it can cause intense hallucinations or a kind of lucid dreaming or dissociative state where some patients lose track of time.

NIMH studies suggest the psychedelic experience with ketamine may play a small but significant role in the drug’s efficacy. Steven Levine, a psychiatrist who has treated 500 patients with ketamine said:

With depression, people often feel very isolated and disconnected. Ketamine seems to leave something indelible behind. People use remarkably similar language to describe their experience: “a sense of connection to other people,” “a greater sense of connection to the universe.”

Hartman travels back-and-forth to an anesthesiologist in New York City for his bimonthly infusions of ketamine. He doesn’t consider himself permanently cured, “but now it’s something I can manage.” In 2012 he helped to found an organization called the Ketamine Advocacy Network, a group that screens ketamine clinics, advocates for insurance coverage and spreads the word on the effectiveness of ketamine to treat depression. The problem is the treatment is not FDA approved. And in higher doses, ketamine is known as the club drug, “Special K.” See previous articles, “Ketamine to the Rescue?” and “Falling Down the K-Hole.”

The promise of ketamine as a fast-acting alternative to other antidepressant medications had led to a growth industry for ketamine clinics around the U.S. and multiple pharmaceutical companies doing their own research into developing ketamine derivatives without the side effects. Ketamine is known to interact with the NMDA receptor involved in learning and memory. So scientists assumed the same receptor was responsible for the anti-depressive action of ketamine. STAT News reported this led to more than a dozen companies trying to develop drugs that target the NMDA receptor. “But these drugs haven’t worked as well as ketamine.” AstraZeneca pulled out of developing its own highly touted ketamine derivative, lanicemine in 2013 when it failed to show long-term benefits.

Iadarola et al. published a 2015 article in the journal Therapeutic Advances in Chronic Diseases that reviewed the growing literature on ketamine efficacy as an antidepressant treatment. They confirmed the temporary effects from ketamine; the effects waned after several days in most patients. The authors suggested that after achieving the antidepressant response from ketamine, the effects could be maintained with intermittent doses of ketamine as described above with Dennis Hartman. Pharmaceutical companies aren’t really interested in moving forward with ketamine infusion since the drug has been long off patent and they can’t make a billion dollar profit on a drug that is off patent. So they seek to develop biosimilars to ketamine.

The latest pharma compound to target the NMDA receptor is esketamine, which Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a division of Johnson & Johnson, is developing as an intranasal spray. Johnson & Johnson announced on August 16, 2016 that the FDA granted esketamine a Breakthrough Therapy Designation. This is the second time esketamine has received a Breakthrough Therapy Designation. The first was in November of 2013. The Breakthrough Therapy Designation is to expedite drug development when a drug demonstrates the potential to be a substantial improvement over available therapies for serious or life-threatening conditions.

But the real excitement may still be ahead. The STAT article cited above reported on a new research study published in the May 26th 2016 issue of the journal Nature that demonstrated a derivative of ketamine could achieve the same benefit, but without the side effects. The study was done on mice, so it has a ways to go in drug development before it can compete with esketamine. Dr. Todd Gould, who led the Nature study, suggested the ineffectiveness of previous studies that targeted the NMDA receptor were because they were looking in the wrong place. His research team showed that the effectiveness of ketamine as an antidepressant doesn’t come from the NMDA receptors—at least not in mice.

In the body, ketamine turns into a molecule called hydroxynorketamine — or HNK — and that molecule is actually what treats the depression. Gould’s team also found that HNK does not interact with the NMDA receptor, and it doesn’t have some of the side effects that ketamine does.

Gould said they have a game plan to move forward with the clinical development of HNK. He and his coauthors have filed a patent application for certain uses of HNK. Outside researchers thought the study was well-done science, but they aren’t convinced it’s time to give up on the NMDA receptor. Their drugs targeting the NMDA receptor are further along in drug development. And they are not convinced they are beating a dead horse just yet. STAT reported that Dr. John Krystal, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist who consults for companies developing NMDA-target drugs said: “In my view, it is quite premature to move away from the hypothesis that NMDA receptor antagonists have antidepressant activity based on this single study.” True, but to you rush to bring your ketamine-like drug to market first?

There will still be the same adverse effects as with ketamine, won’t there? And the temporary nature of the mood elevation is still there, isn’t it? The lack of long-term effects led to the AstraZeneca decision to stop development with lanicemine. And esketamine is “an investigational antidepressant medication, for the indication of major depressive disorder with imminent risk for suicide.” That sounds like a short-term use designation.

Uli Hacksell, chief executive of Cerecor, a Baltimore company that has a Phase 2 drug candidate directed at the NMDA pathway, also took issue with the claim that such drugs might be going after the wrong target, and he said that the paper will have no implications for his company’s development plans. “We think that the clinical data we get with our molecule will speak for themselves,” he said.

One outside researcher, Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was quite supportive of Gould’s research. In his NIH Director’s blog, Collins described the background work leading up to the Gould study. He then said:

 HNK appears to come without the side effects of ketamine. After receiving HNK, mice didn’t show changes in their physical activity, coordination, or sensory perception, as is normally seen after a dose of ketamine. HNK also doesn’t appear to have the same potential for abuse either. When given the option, mice will choose to self-administer ketamine, but not HNK.

The new evidence confirms that HNK doesn’t block NMDA receptors like ketamine does. While there’s more to discover about how HNK works, the evidence reveals an important role for AMPA receptors, another type of glutamate receptor in the brain.

Long-term ketamine users can have irreversible urinary tract and bladder problems. Erowid, a pro-drug website, conducted an online survey that indicated there was a clear correlation between total lifetime use of ketamine and the likelihood of reporting bladder/urinary problems. Now these are health problems that occur with higher doses of ketamine than those used to treat depression. Lower doses over the long-term may not have the same adverse effects. However, these known health concerns should not be overlooked in the rush to bring a new fast-acting antidepressant to market. Ketamine (and its derivatives) to the rescue of depression may not turn out to be the super cure some think it is.

10/21/16

Pharma Companies Hunt in Packs

© Michael Wick | 123rf.com

© Michael Wick | 123rf.com

Turing Pharmaceuticals and its former CEO Martin Shkreli unwittingly shined a spotlight into the dark corner where the high cost of prescription drugs had been growing for years. As Dylan Scott reported for STAT News, Turing acquired an anti-parasitic drug called Daraprim in August of 2015 and promptly raised its price from $13.50 per pill to $750 per pill, a 5,000% increase. Eventually Shkreli resigned as Turing’s CEO, and the $750 pill price changed. GoodRx lists the cost now at over $46,000 for 60 tablets of Daraprim 25mg tablets; $767 per pill. By the way, it still costs $1 or $2 per pill outside the U.S.

But Turing is not a lone wolf pharmaceutical company ravaging the defenseless sheep of American healthcare consumers. Like wolves, pharmaceutical companies hunt in packs. EpiPens cost $100 for a standard two-pack in 2009. Now they cost $600. Valeant Pharmaceuticals came under fire for raising the prices of its 147 drugs by an average of 76% in 2014 and 2015. The average price of a Valeant drug was 33 times higher than comparable generics, according to STAT News. Many of the price increases went unnoticed until Valeant raised the prices on two life-saving heart medications by 525% and 212% on the same day.

Then there is Gilead Sciences and its line of hepatitis C drugs, priced at $1,000 per pill or more. Their aggressive pricing boosted Gilead from the 21st ranked pharmaceutical company by sales in 2013 to the 9th ranked company in 2014. At one time, Gilead had a 95% share of the U.S. treatment market for hepatitis C. With market competition, Gilead prices have come down, but not to the rate they negotiated with seven Indian drug companies in 2014 at around $100 per pill. The cost of Solvadi, the first Gilead hepatitis C drug to hit the market, costs $130 to $150 per pill to produce.

The New York Times reported in April of 2016 that Johnson & Johnson raised prices on several of its top-selling drugs, including a leukemia drug, a diabetes treatment, and an anti-clotting medication. Makers were raising prices on brand-name drugs by double-digit percentages since the start of the year, according to two major drug-benefit managers, Express Scripts and CVS Caremark. The chief medical officer at Express Scripts said: “It used to be the drug companies only took one price increase a year. . . . Now what they’re doing is taking multiple price increases multiple times a year.”

These are but a few examples of the actions by the Pharma wolves. And they aren’t all getting away with these tactics. Valeant has paid a heavy price for its actions. It became the target of congressional probes. Two top executives of the company resigned or were pushed out. Valeant’s stock price dropped from a high of $250 per share to less than $50. At the hearing, an influential board member expressed regret over the steep price increases, “it’s horrible. It’s wrong.” He pledged to have Valeant examine its price structure for the two heart medications, Isuprel and Nitropress. “You can expect from us within weeks and hopefully sooner a response to where we’re going to price these drugs and it will be significantly lower than where they’re priced now.” But even a 30% price cut meant they would be significantly higher than when Valeant acquired the drugs.

In response to the growing pressure over drug prices, Allergan promised not to raise prices by more than single-digit percentage points. In addition, the Allergan CEO pledged to not raise prices more than once per year. In his blog, he stated: “The health care industry has had a longstanding unwritten social contract with patients, physicians, policy makers, and the public at large.” He said that Allergan must keep this social contract in mind as they make business decisions that will ultimately improve wellbeing. “Those who have taken aggressive or predatory price increases have violated this social contract!”

Valeant’s response to this pledge by Allergan was to raise the prices of its drugs by 9.9% soon afterwards in September of 2016. A Wells Fargo analyst called the 9.9% increase “very odd,” and thought it may be an attempt to stay under the radar of managed care plans and states looking for double-digit price increases. STAT News asked Valeant why it chose the 9.9% and not a 10% increase, but didn’t get a reply.

The outrage has led to yet another Congressional attempt to regulate drug prices. The Fair Drug Pricing Act, cosponsored by Senator John McCain and US Representative Jan Schakowsky, would require drug makers to notify the US Department of Health and Human Services and submit a justification report 30 days before a price increase of certain drugs if the increase was more than 10%. The report would also require the companies to provide manufacturing and R&D costs for those drugs, along with net profits and marketing and advertising spending on the drugs. The hope, according to STAT News, is to bring greater transparency to the prescription drug market. Senator Tammy Baldwin said: “Drug corporations are sticking it to American taxpayers with soaring prescription drug prices.”

They are doing so because they received permission to do it from Congress when the Medicare Part D prescription drug legislation was approved ten years ago. Families USA reported that when Medicare Part D became law in 2006, it prohibited the Medicare program from bargaining with pharmaceutical companies to secure lower drug prices. It placed the responsibility in the hands of private drug plans. The failure of to deliver lowers prices with the implementation of Part D was evident within a year. Their analysis of the prices for the top 20 most frequently prescribed drugs to seniors showed that prices through the Veterans Administration, which can negotiate drug prices, were substantially lower than the lowest price charged by the largest Part D insurers. “The median difference was 58 percent.” For half of the 20 drugs, the lowest price charged by Part D insurers was ay least 58% higher than the VA cost.

Science Daily reported on a study published in the August 23/30 2016 issue of JAMA. Per capita spending on prescription drugs was higher in the U.S. than all other countries. Unlike these nations, the U.S. healthcare system permits manufacturers to set their own price for drugs. In countries with national healthcare insurance systems, drug prices are negotiated and sometimes rejected if the asking price is excessive in light of the benefit provided. The most important factor that drives high drug prices is market exclusivity, as was seen with Gilead Sciences and its ability to bring its hepatitis C drug Solvadi to market ahead of its competitors. The availability of generic drugs after patents run out is the primary means of reducing prices in the U.S. However, this can be delayed by a series of business and legal strategies by the drug companies.

In 2013, per capita spending on prescription drugs was $858 compared with an average of $400 for 19 other industrialized nations. In the United States, prescription medications now comprise an estimated 17 percent of overall personal health care services.

The JAMA study, “The High Cost of Prescription Drugs in the United States,” related the standard Pharma justification for high drug prices—the research and development costs incurred by a company to develop new drugs. Their mantra is that if drug prices are regulated, the pipeline for developing new medications will dry up. Economic analyses favored by Pharma assert that it costs $2.6 billion in 2013 dollars to develop a new drug that makes it to the market. But the reality of this figure has been disputed.

First, innovations leading to new drug products are often done in academic institutions and supported by public funding of research grants from sources like the National Institutes of Health. “A recent analysis of the most transformative drugs of the last 25 years found that more than half of the 26 products or product classes identified had their origins in publicly funded research in such nonprofit centers.” Other analyses have pointed to the importance of smaller companies, which are often funded by venture capitalists.

Just one example of this would be the Gilead Science purchase of sofosbuvir (Solvadi) from Pharmasset, a small biotech company, for $11 billion. The drug development was based in part on federally funded research at Emory University. Gilead almost recouped the entire purchase price in 2014 with Solvadi, making $10.3 billion in the first full year it was on the market. In December of 2015, the US Senate Committee on Finance released a detailed report (United States Senate Committee on Finance. The price of Sovaldi and its impact on the US health care system) based upon its access to internal company documents that indicated Gilead’s intent was to maximize the prices it could charge for Solvadi and Harvoni. Senator Wyden said:

Gilead pursued a calculated scheme for pricing and marketing its Hepatitis C drug based on one primary goal, maximizing revenue, regardless of the human consequences. There was no concrete evidence in emails, meeting minutes or presentations that basic financial matters such as R&D costs or the multi-billion dollar acquisition of Pharmasset, the drug’s first developer, factored into how Gilead set the price. Gilead knew these prices would put treatment out of the reach of millions and cause extraordinary problems for Medicare and Medicaid, but still the company went ahead. If Gilead’s approach to pricing is the future of how blockbuster drugs are launched, it will cost billions and billions of dollars to treat just a fraction of patients.

Senator Wyden went on to say that if the cures for diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s diabetes and HIV are unaffordable to millions of people who need them, Congress will not have met its responsibilities to the American people. “I reject the idea that America has to choose between soaring, out-of-reach drug prices and one-size-fits-all government policies. Solving this challenge will take fresh, bipartisan thinking and political independence to bring people together.”

Returning to the JAMA study, the authors noted that most effective way to reduce prices would be to set them for the entire marketplace, like the approach of Sweden. Incidentally, Sweden’s per capita spending on prescription drugs was around $350 in comparison to the $858 per capita expenditure in the U.S. Another option would be to engage in international reference pricing, setting prices at levels found in other countries. “Taking such a step in the United States would have major marketplace ramifications and is not at present politically feasible, in part because of the power of the pharmaceutical lobby in Washington, DC.” The conclusion of the study said:

High drug prices are the result of the increasing cost and complexity of drug development but also arise in large part from the approach the United States has taken to the granting of government-protected monopolies to drug manufacturers, combined with restriction of price negotiation at a level not observed in other industrialized nations. Opportunities to address these problems include paying greater attention to potentially unjustified granting and extension of patent exclusivity, enhancing com- petition by ensuring timely generic drug availability, providing greater opportunities for price negotiation by governmental payers, generating more evidence about comparative cost- effectiveness of therapeutic alternatives, and actively educating physicians and patients about such choices to promote more value-based decision making. There is little evidence that such policies would hamper innovation, and they could even drive the development of more valuable new therapies rather than rewarding the persistence of older ones. Medications are the most common health care intervention and can have a major benefit on the health of individuals, as well as of populations, but unnecessarily high prices limit the ability of patients and health care systems to benefit fully from these vital products.

So the wolves are circling, waiting to see whether or not they can get away with continuing to raise their prices on prescription drugs. What needs to happen is action by Congress to drive back the Pharma wolves. But that may be difficult to attain. They will have to fight through a pack of Pharma lobbyists more numerous than the combined membership of the Senate and House of Representatives. And more daunting, then they have to turn away from the campaign contributions amounting to $272,000 per member of Congress in 2015. But there is some good news about patients needing Daraprim. Imprius Pharmaceuticals now sells an alternative compound with the main ingredient in Daraprim for $1 a pill.

10/11/16

Stacking the Deck with Clinical Trials

© photosebia | stockfresh.com

© photosebia | stockfresh.com

In September of 2007 the “Food and Drug Administration Amendments Act of 2007” became law. This law requires that findings from human testing of drugs and medical devices be made publically available on the NIH website, ClinicalTrials.gov. But it seems that both drug companies and most research institutions—including leading universities and hospitals—routinely violate the law. An investigation by STAT News found that at least 95 percent of all disclosed research results were posted late or not at all.

Drug companies have long been castigated by lawmakers and advocacy groups for a lack of openness on research, and the investigation shows just how far individual firms have gone to skirt the disclosure law. But while the industry generally performed poorly, major medical schools, teaching hospitals, and nonprofit groups did worse overall — many of them far worse.

Four of the top ten recipients of federal medical research funding from the NIH were among the worst offenders. These four were: Stanford, the University of California, San Diego, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Pittsburgh. Researchers, university administrators and hospital executives interviewed by STAT News said they were not intentionally breaking the law. They were just too busy and lacked administrative funding to complete the required data entry on ClinicalTrials.gov. NIH estimated it takes, on average, around 40 hours to submit trials results.

Six organizations — Memorial Sloan Kettering, the University of Kansas, JDRF (formerly the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation), the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Cincinnati, and New York University — broke the law on 100 percent of their studies — reporting results late or not at all.

The Director of NIH, Francis Collins, said the findings were “very troubling.” He said pointing to the time demands on posting data to ClinicalTrials.gov was not an acceptable excuse for noncompliance. Beginning in the spring of 2016, after further refinement of the ClinicalTrials.gov rules, Collins said NIH and FDA will have “a firmer basis for taking enforcement actions.” The FDA is empowered to levy fines of up to $10,000 a day per trial for late reporting to ClinicalTrials.gov.

In theory, it could have collected $25 billion from drug companies since 2008 — enough to underwrite the agency’s annual budget five times over. But neither FDA nor NIH, the biggest single source of medical research funds in the United States, has ever penalized an institution or researcher for failing to post data.

When the “Food and Drug Administration Amendments Act of 2007” became law, Senator Charles Grassley said: “Mandatory posting of clinical trial information would help prevent companies from withholding clinically important information about their products. . . . To do less would deny the American people safer drugs when they reach into their medicine cabinets.” But the failure of drug companies and others to post clinical trial results, coupled with the failure of the FDA to hold them accountable via fines when they don’t, means the American people are being denied the ability to see for themselves if the drugs they take are safe and effective. Kathy Hudson, a deputy director for NIH, said:  “If no one ever knows about the knowledge gained from a study, then we have not been true to our word.”

The scarcity of clinical trial results posted to ClinicalTrails.gov is not the only issue with clinical trials and the NIH website. Drug companies and research facilities are also not prospectively registering clinical trials as they should. Scott, Rucklidge and Mulder found that “less than 15% of psychiatry trials were prospectively registered with no changes in POMs [primary outcome measures].” You can see Julia Rucklidge’s discussion of the study here. Also see “Clinical Trial Sleight-of-Hand” on this website.

Writing for Health Care Renewal, Bernard Carroll said there was a disconnection between the FDA’s drug approval process and what gets published in the medical journals. “Pharmaceutical corporations exploit this gap through adulterated, self-serving analyses, and the FDA sits on its hands.” He suggested that independent analyses of clinical trials be instituted, “because we cannot trust the corporate analyses.”

When corporations are involved, there is no point in prolonging the myth of noble and dispassionate clinical scientists searching for truth in clinical trials. It’s over. We would do better to stop pretending that corporate articles in medical journals are anything but marketing messages disguised with the fig leafs of co-opted academic authors and of so-called peer review.

Carroll proposed that Congress mandate the FDA to analyze all clinical trials data strictly according to the registered protocols and analysis plans. This should apply to new drugs as well as approved drugs being tested for new indications. And it should be applied to publications reporting new trials of approved drugs. “Corporations and investigators should be prohibited from publishing their own in-house statistical analyses unless verified by FDA oversight.” (emphasis in the original) Carroll quoted Eric Topol in a recent BMJ editorial as saying: “The disparity between what appears in peer reviewed journals and what has been filed with regulatory agencies is long standing and unacceptable.”

He gave three reasons for prohibiting in-house corporate analyses of clinical trials data. First, the inherent conflict of interest is too great to be ignored. Carroll described Forest Laboratories and citalopram as an example in his article to illustrate this point. Second, when corporate statisticians are encouraged to play around with the statistical analysis of the trial data (i.e., p-hacking), “they are no longer testing the defined study question with fidelity to the methods specified in the IND protocol.” Third, the FDA should monitor the publication of clinical trial reports in medical journals. The FDA inspects production facilities for evidence of physical adulteration, why not verify that what gets published in journals matches what they presented to the FDA for drug approval? “The harms of adulterated analyses can be just as serious as the harms of adulterated products.”

Pharmaceutical corporations are betting on huge profits with drug development. And allowing them to play fast and loose with clinical trial registration and the analysis of the trial data is akin to stacking the deck in their favor. It’s time to require pharmaceutical companies to stop trying to rig the clinical trial process in their favor.

09/30/16

Chantix Tug-of-War

© AndreyPopov | stockfresh.com

© AndreyPopov | stockfresh.com

On May 18, 2008, George MacDonald was at Fort Benning Georgia. George and his identical twin brother James had successfully completed Infantry Training and the Airborne Course at Fort Benning. They had also been selected for the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School. George was a one-time Eagle Scout. He got up from his bunk to do some laundry and slipped a knife into his pocket. He approached the bunk where Rick Bulmer, who he did not know, was sleeping. Then he stabbed and slashed Rick more than 50 times. A month before, MacDonald had been prescribed Chantix by an Army doctor to help him stop smoking.

Nine hours after the killing, Macdonald wrote: “I snapped and didn’t like it … I was stretched and it made me crazy.” The military judge refused to allow an involuntary intoxication defense and quashed a subpoena issued to Pfizer by MacDonald’s lawyer. Within a month of the judge’s decision, the FDA imposed a black box warning on Chantix. “Within weeks of the military trial judge’s decision in 2009 to quash the subpoena, Pfizer began getting hit with civil lawsuits claiming Chantix had caused suicides, suicide attempts or other neuropsychiatric problems.” MacDonald was convicted of premeditated murder in 2009 and sentenced to life without parole.

The U.S. Court of appeals for the Armed Forces overturned MacDonald’s conviction saying the trial judge had erred in not allowing the involuntary intoxication defense. MacDonald agreed to plead guilty to the unpremeditated murder of Rick Bulmer and his sentence was reduced to 45 years. Bulmer’s family was outraged, according to Tom Jackman writing for The Washington Post. “’It’s a mindblower, and we don’t understand it,’ said Bulmer’s mother, Wendy Smith. ‘He cold-bloodedly killed my son. He knew what he was doing and … he should take his punishment.’”

In a 2010 clemency request for his brother, James wrote that he remarked to his brother that life had started to feel like a video game, where he was disconnected from his body. James had also been prescribed Chantix. George agreed he felt the same way. James said, “I remember the two of us waking up at night having really weird dreams, scary dreams.” In 2013, James killed himself by jumping off of a 19-story building. His sister said he never got over his grief over his brother’s ordeal. You can read more about the MacDonald case here, here  and here on McClatchyDC.

George MacDonald is not alone is claiming that his use of Chantix led to violent acts. In the beginning of August 2016, a Maryland man was found not criminally responsible for shooting his wife in the neck because he was “involuntarily intoxicated” from Chantix. A woman who was taking medication for other reasons used Chantix briefly in 2007. She got her daughter off to school and the next thing she remembered was standing in her kitchen in a puddle of blood. Six hours has passed during which she had used a kitchen knife to cut her left arm. Federal prosecutors dropped charges against a man who “who extremely psychotic and disorganized” aboard a United Airlines flight because of a “Chantix-induced psychotic disorder.”

Al Jazeera reported that Chantix has been linked to 544 suicides and 1,869 attempted suicides.  As a result of a report issued by the Institute for Safe Medication Practices that said the organization had “immediate safety concerns” about individuals operating aircraft, trains buses and other vehicles who were using Chantix, the FAA and Defense Department banned Chantix use among pilots and air traffic controllers.

Eventually some 2,700 former Chantix users sued Pfizer in 2011. Pfizer began to settle with the lawyers representing the mass of civil lawsuits at a cost of $299 million through the first quarter of 2013. Pfizer said the settlement would allow the company to focus on the benefits of the drug. This strategy has been the typical way pharmaceutical companies try to settle lawsuits they aren’t sure they can win. It keeps subpoenaed records out of the hands of the public and other individuals who may want to sue them as well. And it prevents the articulation of a coherent argument about the association between a specific drug and an adverse event from being made in the public square. It enables the pharmaceutical continue to assert as Pfizer did in a statement to McClatchy: “There is no reliable scientific evidence that Chantix causes serious neuropsychiatric events.”

Chantix is approved for use in more than 100 countries and has been prescribed to over 20 million patients worldwide, including more than 10 million in the United States.

Then in April of 2016 the results of a study on more than 8,100 people were published in Lancet. The study had been ordered by the FDA because of the ongoing reports of neuropsychiatric adverse events with Pfizer’s Chantix and GlaxoSmithKline’s Zyban. “The study did not show a significant increase in neuropsychiatric adverse events attributable to varenicline or bupropion relative to nicotine patch or placebo.” However, the funding for the study was from Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline.

Writing for STAT News, Ed Silverman quoted the study authors as saying: “The findings show that it is highly unlikely that (the medicines) contribute to neuropsychiatric adverse events.” The results of the EAGLES study, which the Lancet article was reporting, were processed by Clinical Trials.gov on September 1, 2016, and are available here: Clinical Trials.gov Identifier: NCT01456936.

The results may be a boon for Pfizer, which has struggled for a decade to transform Chantix into a blockbuster product, but instead has encountered negative publicity, expensive litigation, and stalled sales.

Pfizer plans to ask the FDA to remove the black box warning from Chantix. A company spokesperson said: “Available scientific evidence concerning neuropsychiatric events in patients attempting to quit smoking does not support a boxed warning in the Chantix label.” The FDA will review the findings along with additional scientific evidence as they continue to evaluate the issue.

Thomas Moore, a senior scientist with the Institute for Safe Medical Practices, said it would be a mistake to claim the study proves that severe psychiatric side effects don’t occur with Chantix. Because it was a manufacturer-sponsored study done in 140 different centers in 16 countries, Moore suggested it be independently reviewed. Early onset cases of psychosis, aggression and suicidal behaviors have been observed with Chantix by regulators in many countries, “far outnumbering those reported for other smoking treatments.”

With eight different treatment arms, the number of patients in each may not be enough to capture the severe psychiatric side effects for which the drug is known.  The study’s severity assessments were subjective judgments, and the combined endpoint included many psychiatric side effects that Chantix is not suspected of causing.

The criticism by Moore has some legitimacy. Here is a study that found Chantix (varenicline) was no better than NRT (nicotine patch) and C-NRT (nicotine patch and lozenge) with regard to abstinence. “However it is notable that there were significant adverse events of varenicline compared to NRT (e.g. nausea, insomnia, sleepiness) and C-NRT compared to NRT (indigestion, nausea, mouth problems and hiccups).” The website RxISK described several examples of “Chantix and Violence” that were originally reported in the FDA database for adverse drug events.

MacDonald’s case was one of the ones reported on RxISK. There it was reported that George and his twin brother (James) enlisted in the Army were selected for an appointment to the United States Military Academy Preparatory School.  The reported adverse effects experienced by MacDonald included: nightmares, psychosis, homicidal ideation, senseless act, and homicide. The Case report said:

Appellant had been experiencing “new and strange thoughts” including a “person [was] telling me . . . dangerous things that arent [sic] me.” These included violent thoughts of killing someone. On May 18, 2008, one month after the Army doctor prescribed Chantix, Appellant fatally attacked Private (PVT) Bulmer while he was sleeping, stabbing him to death. Prior to this attack, Appellant did not know nor had he ever interacted with PVT Bulmer.

The other cases reported suicidal and homicidal ideation, a suicide attempt, uncontrolled aggression/anger, and senseless violence. What follows are two more of the case reports on RxISK. Thomas Moore sent this information to RxISK.

By the third day of taking Chantix I was completely out of control. I woke my boyfriend up in the middle of the night and started physically beating him. I contemplated suicide about 5 times a day and contemplated homicide about 3 times a day. On Saturday while at home she got into a verbal argument with her mom over a minor issue and reports now that she was ‘totally out of hand’ and she was unable to control her impulses and was yelling and screaming and crying. She acutely became suicidal and also became homicidal threatening her mother with a shotgun. Her mother fled the house and called police. She locked herself in the bathroom and eventually calmed down.

In October of 2014, five nonprofit consumer organizations (Consumer Reports, Institute for Safe Medication Practices, National Center for Health Research, National Physicians Alliance, and Public Citizen) petitioned the FDA to require that the Chantix have boxed warnings clearly describing adverse psychiatric adverse events: suicidal behaviors, aggression/violence, psychosis, and depression. Additional risks with Chantix the petition noted were: sudden blackouts, seizures and impaired vision. I hope and expect they will again protest when Pfizer formally requests that the FDA drop its black box warning for Chantix.

For a previous article about the tug-of-war over problems with Chantix, see “Smoke and Mirrors.”