FDA Reprimands Genentech for “Drastically Overstat[ing] the Efficacy of Tarceva”

by Jonathan J. Darrow

On October 3, 2012, the FDA’s Division of Professional Drug Promotion issued an untitled letter to Genentech in connection with its cancer drug Tarceva.  Tarceva (erlotinib) was approved in 2004 for the treatment of non-small cell lung cancer, and has since been approved, in combination with Gemzar (gemcitabine), for the treatment of pancreatic cancer. Its approval letter reported a tumor response that was 9 times greater with Tarceva than with placebo (0.9% in placebo versus 8.9% in Tarceva), but relatively modest improvements in 1-year survival rates: approximately 8 of 10 patients on placebo did not survive 1 year, while about 7 of 10 patients on Tarceva did not survive (see page 6, line 102 of the approval letter).  A 2005 New York Times article was less than enthusiastic about Tarceva’s efficacy, noting that it (along with several other cancer drugs that were new at the time) “help[s] most patients only marginally . . . .”  Despite its modest efficacy, Tarceva was reported in the same New York Times article to cost almost $31,000 per year.  A number of patents are listed in the FDA’s Orange Book as covering Tarceva until 2020.

The recent untitled letter accused Genentech’s promotional materials of misleadingly indicating that Tarceva in combination with gemcitabine extended overall survival by 3.7 months in comparison with gemcitabine alone, when the actual increase in survival was only about 12 days.  The FDA characterized the discrepancy as “drastically overstat[ing] the efficacy of Tarceva.”  (The figure of 3.7 months was derived, according to the FDA, “from a retrospective, exploratory subgroup analysis that does not provide substantial evidence to support the efficacy claims cited . . . .”). In addition, the front cover of one of the promotional materials in question contained an image of an hourglass positioned on its side, presented with the claim: “Extending survival for moments that matter.”  Although the claim with its associated image may be literally true (“moments” is left undefined), the FDA characterized the image and claim as “drastically overstat[ing] the overall survival benefit for patients” because it “strongly suggests that time is standing still for the cancer patient because of Tarceva therapy.”  The FDA noted a number of other instances of misleading overstatement of efficacy or minimization of risk.

The October 3 Tarceva letter brings to 23 the total number of Drug Marketing and Advertising Warning Letters (and untitled letters) listed by the FDA’s Office of Drug Promotion as having been sent this year.

Art Caplan: Many needlessly getting steroid injections for back pain

In his latest MSNBC column, Art Caplan addresses a different angle of the fungal meningitis outbreak:

Many needlessly getting steroid injections for back pain, bioethicist says

The quest for relief from pain has now resulted in the deaths of 19 people and a total of 247 confirmed infections of fungal meningitis from tainted steroid injections. Thousands more who got the injections, made by the New England Compounding Center in Massachusetts, are worried that they too may wind up sick or dead.

The horrific outbreak has resulted in the outrage about a lack of oversight of the compounding pharmacy.

But, this tragedy has another aspect that is not getting sufficient attention. Why are so many Americans getting spinal injections?

Read More

Regulating Compounding Pharmacies: Why An Increased FDA Role Shouldn’t Be Our Default Option

By Patrick O’Leary

A friend and I were having a conversation about health policy the other day when he observed that drug regulators like FDA face an impossible task in terms of public expectations: as consumers, we expect the drugs we take to be 100% safe, 100% of the time. Of course, no regulator, no matter how powerful or well funded, could deliver on that expectation, and the reality is that FDA operates under a variety of limitations, both fiscal and legal.

The current deadly meningitis outbreak linked to contaminated injections made by a Massachusetts compounding pharmacy shocks us and upsets our expectation that the drugs we take to get better will not, at the very least, cause us harm. Responding reflexively to this crisis, many in the media and in Washington have already started to call for greater federal oversight. This is a natural impulse, but one that merits cool-headed consideration. FDA is an agency that already has a broad statutory mandate and limited resources. Enforcement resources are slim enough that the agency’s response to an HHS report this month finding rampant violation of dietary supplement-labeling laws was simply to say that the agency would “address the recommendations as its resources and priorities allow.” Before we add still further to FDA’s crowded plate at a time when it is already facing a potential budget crisis (and it is worth noting that according to at least one former FDA chief counsel and congressional testimony by agency officials, FDA already possesses the authority to regulate pharmacies like the one involved in the outbreak and historically has done so), it is worth asking whether FDA enforcement is the only or best solution to the problem.

Read More

FDA Drug Amendments: Still a good fit at fifty?

Fifty years ago on Wednesday, President Kennedy signed into law the US Food and Drug Amendments. The amendments radically overhauled the way in which manufacturers brought drugs to market. Most importantly, the amendments instituted the four-phase review process and the requirement that manufacturers get informed consent from people receiving experimental drugs. If the past fifty years is any indication, though, its unlikely that FDA’s current regulations are well suited to deal with the changing context of medicine, including clinical trials of stem-cell therapies forecasted with the Nobel Prize Committee’s awarding of their prize in Physiology or Medicine earlier this week.

The amendments’ supporters had good intentions and the regulations have had positive effects overall. Yet the US government is still trying to redress many of their negative consequences. The rules have proven to be outmoded for new circumstances that policymakers did not have in mind when they created the amendments five decades ago.

The four-phase review process requires that manufacturers apply to the FDA and submit drugs for agency review three times—at least. One consequence of the four-phase review system is that it extended the time until consumers could access new therapies. This can seem a small price to pay to assure that drugs are safe and effective, a phrase that has become the slogan for the Amendments. People with new, fast-moving diseases, however, have seen the delay as a death sentence. For example, sociologist Steven Epstein has written extensively and carefully about the response to drug delays in the 1980s and 1990s among the HIV/AIDS activist community. The FDA has responded with changes, such as a fast-track approval system, but these shifts tend to come only in response to dire crises.

Read More

Will ACA Create a Doctor Shortage–And If So, What Should We Do About It?

By Jennifer S. Bard

Being in my native land of Connecticut reminds me that Mark Twain is famously, if inaccurately, quoted as saying that everyone talks about the weather but no one ever does anything about it.  Nowhere is this concept more true today than in the handwringing over the coming shortage of physicians following the passage of Affordable Care Act.  We hear dire predictions that the patients who now have access to health care will flood the system resulting in poor care not just for them, but for those among us who were lucky enough to already have health insurance.  The American Academy of Family Physicians has recently expressed its concern that the shortage will be made up by nurse practitioners rather than physicians.

This is a situation where the shortage, if it exists, has nothing to do with fear of law suits.  Applications to U.S. medical schools have been steadily increasing.  Moreover, the shortage isn’t of doctors in general, it is of primary care physicians.  There are still a fair number of dermatologists and plastic surgeons, but not so many physicians who provide the kind of primary and preventive care that actually improve the public’s health.

Uwe Reinhardt, the Princeton health care economist, has been following this issue closely and in a series of posts for the New York Times’ Econmix Blog has been aggressively skeptical about the existence of the shortage as well as the actions taken so far by the Federal Government to address it.  He also questions the need both for the residency system as currently structured and for the benefit to the public of subsidizing it through Medicare given what a poor job it does in producing the primary care doctors the public really needs.  Last week, he undertook an extensive analysis of medical school debt which showed that by charging students intending to be high paid specialists the same as those who might go into primary care has created a loan burden that makes it difficult for any but the most dedicated to turn away from training for the most lucrative specialty for which they can qualify. Read More