Saturday, January 26, 2008

Lawyers to have cholesterol feast: lawsuits target Vytorin's makers - and, who is responsible for the "confusion?"

In today's news we find that Merck and Schering Plough are coming under lawsuits as a result of the ezetimibe/Vytorin controversy. This was perhaps to be expected:

Lawsuits target Vytorin's makers
Plaintiffs contend the firms knew the drug didn't work.
Sat, Jan. 26, 2008

By Karl Stark
Inquirer Staff Writer

First came the negative publicity, then the lawsuits.

Merck & Co. and Schering Plough Corp., makers of the cholesterol-lowering combination drug Vytorin, are getting hit with a wave of lawsuits asserting the companies knew its product didn't work and delayed telling the public about it.

At least 10 lawsuits have been filed in federal courts, with half the filings in New Jersey, where both parent companies are based. Other federal suits have landed in California, New York, Ohio and Colorado.

The drugmakers "reaped billions of dollars in profits" by failing to release negative results, asserted a class-action complaint filed by a Philadelphia firm on behalf of Lionel D. Galperin of Washington state. The companies also caused patients to spend more money on Vytorin, which sells for more than $100 for 30 pills, compared with a lower-cost generic, the suit alleges.

Here is where I step off the alleged "anti-pharma" bandwagon ... sort of.

While I have criticized Merck's and Schering's mammoth marketing campaign for these drugs here ("Merck and Vytorin ... Who, Exactly, is Confused?") and here ("Full page ads in major newspapers: Does pharma really spend twice on marketing what it spends on R&D?"), I believe lawsuits with the slant of "Bush lied, people died" (i.e., the firms knew the drug didn't work but withheld the information) are both unmerited and especially unhelpful to those attempting to advance medical science.

This claim is in part based on the following:

The companies completed the [Enhance] study [on these drugs] in April 2006 but did not release preliminary results until a press release was issued on Jan 14 [2008]. That was more than a month after congressional investigators had written to company executives, asking about the delay and demanding documents.

The implication is that actual knowledge of the results were withheld from the public to protect the drug. I do not believe this to be the case. I recall genuine excitement at Merck about Zetia's cholesteral-lowering effects, and great confidence that it was a true breakthrough drug that would generate much needed revenue after multiple drug failures and patent expirations. Clinical medicine, however, is full of surprises.

While such excitement could motivate a company to withhold negative new information, I have a different interpretation of why such delays occurred. Pharma is in a state of downsizing. At Merck, a company that carried on a succcesful business for over 100 years without downsizing, the mass downsizing that began in Nov. 2003 and continues to this day was a major cultural "hammer over the head."

Such social changes tend to sink morale very severely. While Catbert the Evil HR Director might find this amusing, most productive poeple do not. It's also something that cannot be "massaged away" with HR propaganda and "employee appreciation days." As I noted in "Happy Accidents in pharma doubtful: Tax Break Used by Drug Makers Failed to Add Jobs" here, the stress of losing a job is like the stress of a death in the family or a divorce, and the stress of fear of losing a job is also pretty darn bad. As the Alaska state government piece on "surviving a layoff" cited in the above posting states, "remaining employees become overworked, burned out, extremely unhappy and put in a position of fear and uncertainty." It doesn't exactly take a rocket scientist to realize this.

Anecdotally, I reside in a Merck community and hear as much about morale from my local car dealer, haircutter, family medicine physician, restaurant waiters, and others. In fact, I don't believe clinical trials information was withheld deliberately. I believe morale is low, departments are understaffed, and people are playing "CYA" like their lives depended on it (as their careers and ability to pay mortgages and support families depends on their jobs, this is actually not unwise).

Taking morale issues into account, and adding in the three late-stage pre-launch drug failures of 2003, resulting cultural shift to mass layoffs, and the Vioxx debacle, extra long "CYA" to make sure the data and conclusions are correct is understandible in context.

In such an environment, where overworked, stressed out people basically give themselves (effectively speaking) hourly pay raises via doing less per hour, and return to seeing jobs as a value-for-value proposition where an employee in a mirrorlike fashion gives a company what it has earned (i.e., deserves) in terms of their committment and willingness to make sacrifices, long delays in handling complex clinical trials results sets - this study, of course, being just one of many - is not at all surprising.

In addition, politics being what they are in any corporate layoff, many good people (the movers and shakers) get laid off, and other good people can't stand the environment and leave for greener pastures. This leaves behind many less capable colleagues to pick up the slack. I believe the cause of the delays in data release are more likely to be found attributable to low morale, a lesser % of "stars" among the workforce than necessary for optimal effectiveness, dysfunctional self protection-style politics, and resultant lowered productivity.

As an aside, it would not surprise me if recent chemical spills of "liquid mustard gas" into the creeks in my community had at its roots a similar cause:

Pharmaceutical giant Merck has agreed to pay $20 million in assorted fines, environmental improvements and cleanup costs to make up for killing untold fish, fouling drinking water supplies and spoiling a season of recreation on the Wissahickon Creek in Pennsylvania with a toxic "liquid mustard gas," the Philadelphia Inquirer is reporting. The massive impact came from an old-school problem: Dumping toxic chemicals down the drain at a vaccine plant, from which they reacted with chlorine disinfectants and washed into the creek, wreaking havoc downstream for miles.

I do not believe the company would deliberately withhold clinical trials data, and therefore do not believe a "deliberately withheld" charge is reasonable with regard to the ENHANCE clinical trial results on ezetimibe (Zetia) and ezetimibe-Zocor(Vytorin) . If there is a good basis for a lawsuit, perhaps the people who should be sued are those in management and in consulting organizations that recommended layoff strategies and stole the soul of such a once-stellar company.

The newspaper also notes the following:

...The drugmakers aren't the only ones facing scrutiny. Both the American College of Cardiology, which represents most cardiologists, and the American Heart Association echoed the companies' assurances and urged patients on Vytorin not to panic after a major test of Vytorin was released on Jan 14. But their stands have drawn criticism from congressional investigators and others because both groups take in substantial sums from pharmaceutical firms.

I'm not going to comment further on this other than to say "that sounds familiar", as the conflict of interest issue affecting medical professional societies has been well addressed by my Healthcare Renewal colleagues.

I will, however, comment on this:

W. Douglas Weaver, president-elect of the cardiologists, echoed those concerns. "We really had huge numbers of patients calling physicians' offices and not knowing how to interpret this information," Weaver said. "People were discontinuing statins because of the confusion."

The unstated but not-so-subtle implication (to those who understand marketing and "spin") appears to be that the big, bad, "anti-pharma" zealots and their allies in the media have gotten the poor public all confused, and the public is stopping their lifesaving meds as a result.

Having been involved in drug nomenclature activities at Merck as well as being familiar with the work of groups such as the Institute for Safe Medication Practices, one major goal in drug naming is to prevent confusion regarding the drug's nature and purpose. One creates drug names to assure that one drug is not confused for another, by healthcare professionals, patients, and others. Information scientists and others work very hard to select names for drugs that do not "resemble" others in spelling, phonetics, etc.

Now, just who is responsible for the confusion among patients "discontinuing statins because of the confusion?"

It seems to me the brainiacs who came up with the marketing scheme of giving a combination drug consisting of a newly-generic drug and a newly-approved one an entirely new name to milk more income out of a drug going generic -- and effectively discourage doctors/patients from simply prescribing/taking two pills (the generic and the new one) -- are largely responsible.

How many patients really understand that their wonder drug has two parts, one old, one new, that they could purchase and take separately likely for less cost than the combination, and that only the "new" part has come under scrutiny? How many understand that if the statin part of the new combination drug doesn't agree with them, they would have to discard the drug instead of simply replacing the statin? In addition, do busy general practice physicians understand this? One wonders.

It therefore seems the marketing folks as well as the drug naming approval organizations and the FDA carry significant blame for the "confusion." Perhaps this is a case of the unexpected (or should I say the predictable but undesired?) happening that provides evidence drug combinations should not be given snappy new names or approved as expensive "new" drugs.

Finally, I cannot but think it ironic that just as VIOXX and other similar drugs may have caused platelets and/or blood vessel walls to become more "sticky" and create vascular side effects, so ezetimibe might cause cholesterol and/or blood vessels to be more "sticky" for reasons not yet understood and negate some of the cholesterol lowering effects. It would be ironic indeed, as the newspaper article suggests by the observation "the combination drug failed to provide any benefit and even performed slightly worse than Zocor alone", if long term studies show ezetimibe to create more harm than good.

However, clinicians, the company and the regulators should be prepared if this occurs to get the data out ASAP when it is available fron ongoing studies - low morale or not.

-- SS

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The following is posted on

A Failed Attempt to Improve Misperceived Greatness: The ENHANCE Trial

While it seems that sponsors of clinical trials usually end up with results that clearly favor their meds studied in thier trial, there are rare exceptions, and Merck and Schering proved that with their disappointing ENHANCE Trial, which many have heard about through the media not long ago. The drug studied was Vytorin, comparing it with Zocor
Vytorin is a combination med for high cholesterol and contains Merck’s Zocor, which is now generic, and Schering’s Zetia, which works differently than Zocor, which is one of many statin drugs. Both Vytorin and Zetia are co-promoted by Merck and Schering. So, several years ago, an outcomes study was initiated to prove superiority of Vytorin over Zocor as monotherapy. The trial was named the ENHANCE trial.
After several years passed, a disappointment arrived for the sponsors of this trial, which was first brought to the attention of Schering in March of 2007, yet the results existed since the spring of 2006, I believe.

The disappointment is that Vytorin lacked anticipated benefit or superiority over Zocor. Since about 1 million scripts were written for both Vytorin and Zetia every week in 2007, combined with what I believe was about 5 billion in revenue for these two drugs that year, this was a problem for the drug makers. Perhaps for Schering in particular, it was more of a calamity, since over half of their profits and earnings were from these two drugs.
Being the responsible corporations both companies are, of course, alterations occurred after such events that fractured numerous rules and regulations with clinical trials.

The trial sponsors delayed the release of the trial results for secrecy reasons, it has been speculated. Results from the trial existed, yet were not disclosed at the time of their discovery. After several months of possessing these trial results that were only known to the manufacturers, they created or implemented some atrocious tactics to improve the trial’s unimpressive results. At the end of 2007, the companies changed the primary endpoint of the trial, which is what the results were measured upon during the entire course of the trial. Since their deliberate concealment of these trial results was clearly wrong, to respond to those who asked where the results were actually while such trial manipulation was occurring and results were being kept secret, Schering stated that continued data analysis from the trial results was the etiology for the delay.
With clinical trials, case report forms are used to record data from the trials, and are created in a manner where further analysis is not normally necessary, as such forms are quite clear and often not subject to interpretation. So at the end of 2007, both Merck and Schering got the attention of relevant government officials who contacted both companies regarding this ENHANCE trial, and an investigation began into the activities of both companies regarding this trial at that point.

This became a catalyst for the ENHANCE trial results to be finally released at the beginning of 2008, which caught the attention of major media organizations. In the spring of 2008, a very large cardiology meeting was held, where the audience was told to stick with statins due to this trial’s lack of outcomes for Vytorin, when the ENHANCE trial was discussed at this meeting. Furthermore, a cardiologist at this meeting also suggested that a moratorium should occur with the utilization of Vytorin, since statins are much less expensive, and are highly regarded, as they have been available for a couple of decades. Of course and as expected, Merck and Schering were not pleased, nor were they surprised at the review of Vytorin at this particular meeting. The following month after this cardiology meeting, Schering’s earnings dropped by 48 percent, as I recall.

Now, these cholesterol drugs promoted by Merck and Schering, Zetia and Vytorin, were aggressively marketed in a number of ways, including investing I believe about 200million dollars in 2007 for DTC ads for these products. To add to this, and soon after both meds were launched, reps from both companies made inferences to doctors about outcomes regarding plaque accumulation and how Vytorin was superior in that area, which, of course, this ENHANCE trial proved it is in fact not the case whatsoever. It did not matter, apparently, to both Merck and Schering that such a claim is entirely void of proof, which Is not unique to any pharma rep, in my opinion. Yet what is known now is that these companies performed junk science with their deliberate manipulation of this ENHANCE trial. Last year, Zetia and Vytorin had about 20 percent of the cholesterol lowering market. It does not seem that there will be an increase of this percentage because of this scandal.
Worst of all is the harm caused to both doctors and patients. The ENHANCE trial concerned and confused both of these participants in the health care system. Furthermore, it’s likely they were devastated by being so clearly misled by the marketing of both Merck and Schering regarding the false benefits of Vytorin they were led to believe by the companies that promoted them.
This whole situation is another example of the corruption of the scientific method by placing profits over the well-being of patients. Most were shocked by Merck behaving in such a way in particular because of what use to be their excellent reputation as an ethical pharmaceutical company. And this alone shows the progression and infiltration of such damaging corruption that desperately needs to be stopped and corrected for the sake of others.

Don’t just say something. Have something to say- to the right people, with conviction and with others who share your views.

“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.” --- Marcus Aurelius
Dan Abshear