Pharma, evidence, and trust

by David Rind, MD

A number of the other blogs that have noted the existence of this blog seem to have “Pharma” in their titles in one way or another, and the implication is not that the blogger likes much about Big Pharma.

In the late 1990s, when I was spending much of my clinical time providing HIV care, I was a defender of Pharma on Usenet, at least as it related to HIV. We’d discovered the HIV virus in 1985, and by late 1995 we had a spectacularly successful treatment, due, at least in part, to the efforts of the drug manufacturers. HAART changed the lives of people with AIDS, and the lives of their caregivers, and costs of $10K to $15K per year to keep a young person alive and functional seemed perfectly reasonable to me. I thought the carping about the high prices of these medications was unfair — it was a remarkable accomplishment to find an effective treatment for a viral infection in so short a time, and the billions spent on it deserved some reward.

By a few years later, though, I was finding myself as distrustful and angry at Pharma as anyone out there. I spend a lot of my time reading research papers and interpreting evidence, and realized one day that Pharma was employing people at least as smart and knowledgeable as I to come up with ways to trick us all about what studies showed. One example of this is running parallel studies of an agent and then only publishing the positive studies while burying the negative studies, as was done with trials of SSRIs in adolescents. The concept of a p value becomes essentially meaningless if researchers perform an unknown N of parallel trials and then publish the ones that show a positive result.

I want to comment on one pernicious effect of this behavior — I have come to distrust and then dislike the companies that provide the (often useful) drugs I must use on patients. When the new HDL-raising drug torcetrapib went down in flames a few years ago, I was actually pleased: I was furious with Pfizer for having tried to get torcetrapib approved in a way that would have only marketed it in a combo pill with atorvastatin. Objectively, it makes no sense that I should be happy at the failure of a drug that would have helped my patients had it worked.

Pharma not only tries to manipulate the interpretation of results of trials, in the design, analysis, and publication phases, they apparently also try to sow doubt about existing competitors. Adriane Fugh-Berman wrote in 2005 about how she was recruited to be the author on a ghost-written manuscript intended to highlight the importance of herbal interactions in patients on warfarin (interactions that Dr. Fugh-Berman felt were overstated). The company recruiting her was presumably working for AstraZeneca, the manufacturer of ximelgatran. Ximelgatran, a direct thrombin inhibitor that aimed to replace warfarin, was eventually withdrawn from the market in Europe (never approved in the US) because of hepatotoxicity.

In the face of this comes the RE-LY trial comparing warfarin with dabigatran, another direct thrombin inhibitor. I didn’t start blogging until well after the publication of RE-LY, but hopefully others noted that this 18,000 person trial may reflect one of the biggest advances in medical therapy of the decade. Dabigatran appears to be a superior drug to warfarin — at lower doses it is safer than wafarin and as effective, and at higher doses it is equally safe to warfarin and more effective. Unlike warfarin it does not require a careful diet or routine monitoring of INRs.

By all rights, dabigatran should take over the oral anticoagulation market, at least for atrial fibrillation (we need additional trials in other clinical settings). The natural skeptic in me would always want to wait a bit on using a new drug. Warfarin has been around for decades and has been used in tens of millions of people and we have a good sense of its benefits and (myriad) risks and burdens, while dabigatran has not been used nearly so widely nor for so long. New drugs have a habit of showing up rare side effects once they are out of clinical trials and on the market.

But my greater fear is that somehow Pharma is pulling something over on me, the editors of the NEJM that published RE-LY, and everyone else, and that it will somehow turn out that dabigatran not only isn’t as big an advance as it appears, but that its manufacturers already know this and aren’t telling.

Ultimately, if I had to bet, I don’t think this will be the case with dabigatran. Five to ten years from now, I’m guessing that the residents I teach will have no clue that we used to routinely treat patients with rat poison and monitor bleeding parameters every couple of weeks or so in order to prevent clots and emboli. But I wish I didn’t have to fear that the manufacturers of the drugs I use might not actually be working toward the same goals that I am, and instead might be working to fool me yet again.

David Rind is an internal medicine physician who blogs at Evidence in Medicine.

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