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Change in FDA approval policy led to 7 deadly drugs

Under pressure, the agency adopted a faster approach that sometimes disregarded the warnings of its own experts.

©Los Angeles Times

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 28, 2000


WASHINGTON -- For most of its history, the Food and Drug Administration approved new prescription medicines at a grudging pace, paying daily homage to the physician's creed, "First, do no harm."

Then in the early 1990s, the demand for AIDS drugs changed the political climate. Congress told the FDA to work closely with pharmaceutical companies in getting new medicines to market more swiftly. President Clinton urged FDA leaders to trust industry as "partners, not adversaries."

The FDA achieved its new goals, but now the human cost is becoming clear.

Seven drugs approved since 1993 have been withdrawn after reports of deaths and severe side effects. A two-year Los Angeles Times investigation has found that the FDA approved each of those drugs while disregarding danger signs or blunt warnings from its own specialists. Then, after receiving reports of significant harm to patients, the agency was slow to seek withdrawals.

According to "adverse-event" reports filed with the FDA, the seven drugs were cited as suspects in 1,002 deaths. Because the deaths are reported by doctors, hospitals and others on a voluntary basis, the actual number of fatalities could be far higher, according to epidemiologists.

An adverse-event report does not prove that a drug caused a death; other factors, such as pre-existing disease, could play a role. But the reports are regarded by public health officials as the most reliable early warnings of danger.

The FDA's performance was tracked through an examination of thousands of pages of government documents, other data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and interviews with more than 60 present and former agency officials.

The seven drugs weren't needed to save lives. One was for heartburn. One was a diet pill. A third was a painkiller. All told, six of the medicines were never proven to offer lifesaving benefits, and the seventh, an antibiotic, was ultimately judged unnecessary because safer antibiotics were available.

The seven are among hundreds of new drugs approved since 1993, a period during which the FDA has become known more for its speed than its caution. In 1988, only 4 percent of new drugs introduced into the world market were approved first by the FDA. In 1998, the FDA's first-in-the-world approvals spiked to 66 percent. The drug companies' batting average in getting new drugs approved also climbed. By the end of the 1990s, the FDA was approving more than 80 percent of the industry's applications for new products, compared with about 60 percent at the beginning of the decade.

And the companies have prospered: The seven unsuccessful drugs alone generated U.S. sales exceeding $5-billion before they were withdrawn.

Once the world's unrivaled safety leader, the FDA was the last to withdraw several new drugs in the late 1990s that were banned by authorities in Europe.

"This track record is totally unacceptable," said Dr. Curt D. Furberg, a professor of public health sciences at Wake Forest University. "The patients are the ones paying the price. They're the ones developing all the side effects, fatal and non-fatal. Someone has to speak up for them."

The FDA's faster and more lenient approach helped supply pharmacy shelves with scores of new remedies. But it has also yielded these fatal missteps, according to the documents and interviews:

Only 10 months ago, FDA administrators dismissed one of its medical officer's emphatic warnings and approved Lotronex, a drug for treating irritable bowel syndrome. Lotronex has been linked to five deaths, the removal of a patient's colon and other bowel surgeries. It was pulled off the market Nov. 28.

The diet pill Redux, approved in April 1996 despite an advisory committee's vote against it, was withdrawn in September 1997 after heart-valve damage was detected in patients put on the drug. The FDA later received reports identifying Redux as a suspect in 123 deaths.

The antibiotic Raxar was approved in November 1997 in the face of evidence that it may have caused several fatal heart-rhythm disruptions in clinical studies. FDA officials chose to exclude any mention of the deaths from the drug's label. The maker of the pill withdrew it in October 1999. Raxar was cited as a suspect in the deaths of 13 patients.

The blood pressure medication Posicor was approved in June 1997 despite findings by FDA specialists that it might fatally disrupt heart rhythm and interact with certain other drugs, posing potentially severe risk. Posicor was withdrawn one year later; reports cited it as a suspect in 100 deaths.

The painkiller Duract was approved in July 1997 after FDA medical officers warned repeatedly of the drug's liver toxicity. Senior officials sided with the manufacturer in softening the label's warning of the liver threat. The drug was withdrawn 11 months later. By late 1998, the FDA had received voluntary reports citing Duract as a suspect in 68 deaths, including 17 that involved liver failure.

The diabetes drug Rezulin was approved in January 1997 over a medical officer's detailed opposition and was withdrawn last March after the agency had linked 91 liver failures to the pill. Reports cite Rezulin as a suspect in 391 deaths.

The nighttime heartburn drug Propulsid was approved in 1993 despite evidence that it caused heart-rhythm disorders. The officials who approved the drug failed to consult the agency's own cardiac specialists about the signs of danger. The drug was taken out of pharmacies in July after scores of confirmed heart-rhythm deaths. Overall, Propulsid has been cited as a suspect in 302 deaths.

The FDA's handling of Propulsid put children at risk.

The agency never warned doctors not to administer the drug to infants or other children even though eight youngsters given Propulsid in clinical studies had died. Pediatricians prescribed it widely for infants afflicted with gastric reflux, a common digestive disorder.

Parents and their doctors had no way of knowing that the FDA, in August 1996, had found Propulsid to be "not approvable" for children.

"We never knew that," said Jeffrey A. Englebrick, a heavy-equipment welder in Shawnee, Kan., whose 3-month-old son, Scott, died Oct. 28, 1997, after taking Propulsid. "To me, that means they took my kid as a guinea pig to see if it would work."

By the time the drug was pulled, the FDA had received reports of 24 deaths of children younger than 6 who were given Propulsid. By then the drug had generated U.S. sales of $2.5-billion for Johnson & Johnson Co.

Questions also surround the recent approvals of other compounds that remain on the market, including a new flu drug called Relenza. In February 1999, an FDA advisory committee concluded that Relenza had not been proven safe and effective. The agency nevertheless approved it. After the deaths of seven patients, the FDA last January issued a "public health advisory" to doctors.

Ten drugs have been pulled from the market in the past three years for safety reasons, including three pills that were approved before the shift that took hold in 1993. Never before has the FDA overseen the withdrawals of so many drugs in such a short time. More than 22-million Americans -- about 10 percent of the nation's adult population -- took those drugs.

With many of the drugs, the FDA used tiny-print warnings or recommendations in package labeling as a way to justify approvals or stave off withdrawals. In other instances, the agency has withheld safety information from labels that physicians say would call into question the use of the product.

Present and former FDA specialists said the regulatory decisions of senior officials have clashed with the agency's central obligation, under law, to "protect the public health by ensuring . . . that drugs are safe and effective."

"They've lost their compass and they forget who it is that they are ultimately serving," said Dr. Lemuel A. Moye, a University of Texas School of Public Health physician who served from 1995 to 1999 on an FDA advisory committee. "Unfortunately the public pays for this, because the public believes that the FDA is watching the door, that they are the sentry."

FDA officials said that they have tried conscientiously to weigh benefits vs. risks in deciding whether to approve new drugs. They noted that many doctors and patients complain when a drug is withdrawn.

"All drugs have risks; most of them have serious risks," said Dr. Janet Woodcock, director of the FDA's drug-review center. She added that some of the withdrawn drugs were "very valuable, even if not lifesaving, and their removal from the market represents a loss, even if a necessary one."

The impetus for change at the FDA emerged in 1988, when AIDS activists paralyzed operations for a day at the agency's 18-story headquarters in Rockville, Md. They demanded immediate approval of experimental drugs that offered at least a ray of hope to those otherwise facing death.

The FDA often was taking more than two years to review new drug applications. The pharmaceutical industry saw a chance to loosen the regulatory brakes and expedite an array of new products to market. The companies and their Capitol Hill lobbyists pressed for advantage: If unshackled, they said, the companies could invent and develop more remedies faster.

The political pressure mounted, and the FDA began to bow. By 1991, agency officials told Congress they were making significant progress in speeding approvals.

The emboldened companies pushed for more. They proposed that drugs intended for either life-threatening or "serious" disorders receive a quicker review.

"The pharmaceutical companies came back and lobbied the agency and the Hill for that word, "serious,"' recalled Jeffrey A. Nesbit, who in 1991 was chief of staff to FDA Commissioner David A. Kessler. "Their argument was, "Well, okay, there's AIDS and cancer. But there are drugs (being developed) for Alzheimer's. And that's a serious illness.' They started naming other diseases. They began to push that envelope."

In 1992, Kessler issued regulations giving the FDA discretion to "accelerate approval of certain new drugs" for serious or life-threatening conditions. That same year a Democrat-controlled Congress approved and President George Bush signed the Prescription Drug User Fee Act. It established goals that call for the FDA to review drugs within six months or a year; the pharmaceutical companies pay a user fee to the FDA, now $309,647, with the filing of each new drug application. The newly elected Clinton administration climbed aboard with its "reinventing government" project. Headed by Vice President Al Gore, the project called for the FDA, by January 2000, to reduce "by an average of one year the time required to bring important new drugs to the American public."

For the FDA's medical reviewers -- the physicians, pharmacologists, chemists and biostatisticians who scrutinize the safety and effectiveness of emerging drugs -- a new order had taken hold.

One of these reviewers was Michael Elashoff, a biostatistician who arrived at the FDA in 1995 after earning degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, and the Harvard School of Public Health.

Last year he was assigned to review Relenza, the new flu drug developed by Glaxo Wellcome. He recommended against approval.

An agency advisory committee agreed and on Feb. 24 voted 13-4 against approving Relenza.

After the vote, senior FDA officials upbraided Elashoff. They stripped him of his review of another flu drug. They told him he would no longer make presentations to the advisory committee. And they approved Relenza as a safe and effective flu drug.

Elashoff and other FDA reviewers discern a powerful message.

"People are aware that turning something down is going to cause problems with (officials) higher up in FDA, maybe more problems than it's worth," he said. "Before I came to the FDA I guess I always assumed things were done properly. I've lost a lot of faith in taking a prescription medicine."

Elashoff left the FDA four months ago.

In 1994, the FDA's goal was to finish 55 percent of its new drug reviews on time; the agency achieved 95 percent. In 1995, the goal was 70 percent; the FDA achieved 98 percent. In 1996 the goal was 80 percent; the FDA achieved 100 percent. In both 1997 and 1998, the goal was 90 percent and the FDA achieved 100 percent.

The time-limit goals quickly were treated as deadlines within the FDA -- imposing relentless pressure on reviewers and their bosses to quickly conclude their work and approve the drugs.

Dozens of officials interviewed by the Los Angeles Times made similar observations.

"The pressure to meet deadlines is enormous," said Dr. Solomon Sobel, 65, director of the FDA's metabolic and endocrine drugs division in the 1990s. And the pressure is not merely to complete the reviews, he said. "The basic message is to approve."

The perception of coziness with drugmakers is perpetuated by potential conflicts of interest within the FDA's 18 advisory committees, the influential panels that recommend which drugs deserve approval or should remain on the market. The FDA allows some appointees to double as consultants or researchers for the same companies whose products they are evaluating. Such was the case during appraisals of several of the recently withdrawn drugs, including Lotronex and Posicor, the Los Angeles Times found.

The FDA reviewers said they and their bosses fear that unless the new drugs are approved, companies will erupt and Congress will retaliate by refusing to renew the user fees. This would cripple FDA operations -- and jeopardize jobs.

The companies' money now covers about 50 percent of the FDA's costs for reviewing proposed drugs -- and agency officials say that persuading Congress to renew the user fees into 2007 is now a top priority.

Yet even if the user fees remain, the FDA is prohibited from spending the revenue for anything other than reviewing new drugs. So while the budget for pre-approval reviews has soared, the agency has gotten no similar increase of resources to evaluate the safety of the drugs after they are prescribed.

Lotronex

Purpose: To treat irritable bowel syndrome

Approved: 10 months ago

Pulled: Nov. 28

FDA administrators dismissed one of its medical officer's emphatic warnings and approved the drug, which has been linked to five deaths, the removal of a patient's colon and other bowel surgeries.

Redux

Purpose: Diet pill

Approved: April 1996

Pulled: September 1997

It was approved despite an advisory committee's vote against it, and pulled after heart-valve damage was detected in patients put on the drug. The FDA later received reports identifying Redux as a suspect in 123 deaths.

Raxar

Purpose: Antibiotic

Approved: November 1997

Pulled: October 1999

The drug was approved in the face of evidence that it may have caused several fatal heart-rhythm disruptions in clinical studies. FDA officials chose to exclude any mention of the deaths from the drug's label. Raxar was cited as a suspect in the deaths of 13 patients.

Posicor

Purpose: Blood pressure medication

Approved: June 1997

Pulled: 1998

The drug was approved despite findings by FDA specialists that it might fatally disrupt heart rhythm and interact with certain other drugs, posing potentially severe risk. Reports cite Posicor as a suspect in 100 deaths.

Duract

Purpose: Painkiller

Approved: July 1997

Pulled: 11 months later

It was approved after FDA medical officers warned repeatedly of the drug's liver toxicity. Senior officials sided with the manufacturer in softening the label's warning of the liver threat. By late 1998, the FDA had received voluntary reports citing Duract as a suspect in 68 deaths, including 17 that involved liver failure.

Rezulin

Purpose: To treat diabetes

Approved: January 1997

Pulled: March 2000

The drug was approved over a medical officer's detailed opposition and was pulled after the FDA had linked 91 liver failures to the pill. Reports cite Rezulin as a suspect in 391 deaths.

Propulsi

Purpose: Nighttime heartburn drug

Approved: 1993

Pulled: July 2000

It was approved despite evidence that it caused heart-rhythm disorders. The officials who approved the drug failed to consult the agency's own cardiac specialists about the signs of danger. The drug was taken out of pharmacies after scores of confirmed heart-rhythm deaths. Overall, Propulsid has been cited as a suspect in 302 deaths.

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