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Huge-Selling Diabetes Drug Kills Needlessly; Pharma Cover Up

nytimes.com | 02/20/10

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Read More: avandia, diabetes, heart failer, medicine, Rosiglitazone

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Hundreds of people taking Avandia, a controversial diabetes medicine, needlessly suffer heart attacks and heart failure each month, according to confidential government reports that recommend the drug be removed from the market.

The reports, obtained by The New York Times, say that if every diabetic now taking Avandia were instead given a similar pill named Actos, about 500 heart attacks and 300 cases of heart failure would be averted every month because Avandia can hurt the heart. Avandia, intended to treat Type 2 diabetes, is known as rosiglitazone and was linked to 304 deaths during the third quarter of 2009.

"Rosiglitazone should be removed from the market," one report, by Dr. David Graham and Dr. Kate Gelperin of the Food and Drug Administration, concludes. Both authors recommended that Avandia be withdrawn.

The internal F.D.A. reports are part of a fierce debate within the agency over what to do about Avandia, manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline. Some agency officials want the drug withdrawn because they believe there is a safer alternative; others insist that studies of the drug provide contradictory information and that Avandia should continue to be an option for doctors and patients. GlaxoSmithKline said that it had studied Avandia extensively and that "scientific evidence simply does not establish that Avandia increases" the risk of heart attacks.

The battle has been brewing for years but has been brought to a head by disagreement over a new clinical trial and a Senate investigation that concluded that GlaxoSmithKline should have warned patients earlier of the drug's potential risks.

Avandia was once one of the biggest-selling drugs in the world. Driven in part by a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign, sales were $3.2 billion in 2006. But a 2007 study by a Cleveland Clinic cardiologist suggesting that the drug harmed the heart prompted the F.D.A. to issue a warning, and sales plunged. A committee of independent experts found in 2007 that Avandia might increase the risk of heart attack but recommended that it remain on the market, and an F.D.A. oversight board voted 8 to 7 to accept that advice.

Hundreds of thousands still take the medicine, although some top endocrinologists say they have sworn off the drug.

Since 2007, more studies have been done. In a December 2009 internal memorandum, Dr. Janet Woodcock, director of the F.D.A.'s drug center, wrote that "there are multiple conflicting opinions" about Avandia within the agency, and she ordered officials to assemble another advisory committee, expected this summer, to reconsider whether the drug should be sold.

"I await the recommendations of the advisory committee," the agency's commissioner, Dr. Margaret Hamburg, said Friday night. "Meanwhile, I am reviewing the inquiry made by Senators Baucus and Grassley and I am reaching out to ensure that I have a complete understanding and awareness of all of the data and issues involved."

The bipartisan multiyear Senate investigation -- whose results are expected to be released publicly on Monday but which were also obtained by The Times -- sharply criticizes GlaxoSmithKline, saying it failed to warn patients years earlier that Avandia was potentially deadly.

"Instead, G.S.K. executives attempted to intimidate independent physicians, focused on strategies to minimize or misrepresent findings that Avandia may increase cardiovascular risk, and sought ways to downplay findings that a competing drug might reduce cardiovascular risk," concludes the report, which was overseen by Senator Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, and Senator Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican.

Mr. Baucus said of the report, "Patients trust drug companies with their health and their lives, and GlaxoSmithKline abused that trust."

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