Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Alzheimer’s drug sharply criticized

McClatchy News Service |


WASHINGTON — Watching Alzheimer’s disease steal away the memory, talents and very selves of its victims is hard enough for the people who love them. But a new pill formulated by a respected pharmaceutical company and approved by the Food and Drug Administration will do little to help most patients and bring misery to some, say two medical investigators.


The drug, Aricept 23 mg, is no more effective on the whole than the disappointing ones already on the market — but is more likely to cause gastrointestinal problems, wrote Drs. Steven Woloshin and Lisa Schwartz of Dartmouth Medical College in an article published Thursday in the medical journal BMW


The new formulation was devised to serve commercial objectives, they say, and was approved despite a poor showing in company-sponsored tests.


Woloshin and Schwartz described Aricept 23’s march to market in 2010 as “perplexing” and “depressing” and wrote “there is no excuse for manipulating vulnerable patients, desperate family members and their doctors to use a product that is most likely to cause net harm.”


Dr. Marcia Angell, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine and author of “The Truth About the Drug Companies,” said the critique was important. “It illustrates very well how drug companies exaggerate the benefits of their drugs, minimize the side effects, and through misleading marketing to both doctors and the public convince them that a new version of a drug, with a new patent, is better than the old one, whose patent has expired,” Angell told the Los Angeles Times.


Not really a new solution


In 2010, the FDA and the pharmaceutical giant Eisai handed caregivers of those with Alzheimer’s a new option for treating their loved ones — a 23-milligram dose of the long-available Alzheimer’s drug donepezil, better known by its commercial name, Aricept.
Aricept 23 was aggressively marketed (Eisai’s marketing partner in the United States is Pfizer Inc.) in magazine advertisements in a campaign touting clinical benefits and plucking at caregivers’ heartstrings.


But Schwartz and Woloshin say the new option was a commercial plan to extend a brand-name medication’s profit-making life by t
three years.


Renewing profitability


The practice, a common response to a drug company’s imminent loss of patent rights on a product, is known as “evergreening.” Aricept’s patent rights were due to expire in November 2010, and generic drug manufacturers in short order were sure to market donepezil much more cheaply.


Pharmaceutical companies routinely look for ways — all perfectly legal — to extend the profit-making life of their product: They make a slight change to a drug’s formula or dosage, or they combine it with another drug. With FDA approval, the new product is granted three years of legal protection from generic competition.
In the case of Aricept, developing a 23-milligram tablet created a dose that couldn’t be reproduced by any combination of Aricept’s existing 5- and 10-milligram pills, making the product new enough to win a three-year reprieve from low-cost competitors.
But Woloshin and Schwartz noted Eisai’s research showed that the pill offered a greater risk of side effects such as nausea and vomiting with no proof of benefit that a caregiver would be likely to notice.


FDA officials should not have allowed it, the authors said, because the clinical studies Eisai offered in support of its application did not meet standards the agency itself had laid out.


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