Saturday, August 30, 2008

Response from author of "The ADVANTAGE Seeding Trial"

In response to my earlier post "Merck scientific debate hits bottom" I received the following from one of the authors of the VIOXX seeding trial paper The ADVANTAGE Seeding Trial: A Review Of Internal Documents, Ann Intern Med 2008", Dr. David Egilman, MD, MPH.

I posted Dr. Egilman's opinions below at his request. My own thoughts follow.

Dr. Egilman also posted numerous documents to and from Merck's lawyer at this link. (The tone of some of those documents towards Dr. Egilman is particularly disturbing, such as the one here.)


David Egilman, MD, MPH
To: Healthcare Renewal

I am one of the authors of the "Seeding" paper.

Merck executive
Dr. Jonathan M. Edelman, Executive director, Global Center for Scientific Affairs wrote:

There's no doubt that the ADVANTAGE clinical trial had a legitimate scientific purpose. That purpose was to assess the gastrointestinal tolerability of VIOXX compared to naproxen – a commonly used arthritis medicine with known tolerability problems – in the treatment of patients with osteoarthritis in a primary care setting, and for the first time allowed patients taking concomitant aspirin to participate.

Dr. Edelman's claim that ADVANTAGE was the first trial that permitted aspirin use with Vioxx is incorrect. Study 058, which was part of Merck's application for new drug approval submitted in November 1998, permitted the use of up to 325 mg of aspirin per day. ADVANTAGE only permitted up to 100 mg per day. Study 058 was a 30 week trial. ADVANTAGE was only a 12 week trial. Study 058 involved patients older than 80, comparing Vioxx to namebutone (another NSAID) and was completed in April 1998, about 10 months before ADVANTAGE enrolled a single patient. Study 078, the ghost-written Alzheimer’s trial also permitted aspirin, began in April 1998 and was scheduled to be completed by April 2000 before the end of the ADVANTAGE trial. More patients took low dose aspirin in the Vigor trial than the Advantage trial.

Further, ADVANTAGE was not designed to test the effect of aspirin on anything. Although aspirin was permitted, the examination of aspirin effects was not included as part of the study objective which Merck described: "[t]o assess the tolerability of rofecoxib (VIOXX) compared with naproxen for treatment of osteoarthritis." On the other hand, Merck Study 136 was designed to test the effects of concomitant aspirin and NSAID use. This study revealed that Vioxx offered no GI protection to low dose aspirin users who constituted the majority of potential Vioxx users.

By November 1998, when Merck sought FDA approval for an OA indication and three months before the ADVANTAGE trial enrolled any patients, Merck had already informed the FDA it had sufficient studies to prove Vioxx was efficacious for osteoarthritis patients. Merck's osteoarthritis trials (that it used to get FDA approval for use of VIOXX in osteoarthritis patients) had compared Vioxx to 3 other NSAIDS. The VIGOR trial, which tested Vioxx and naproxen in rheumatoid arthritis patients, started at the same time as ADAVANTAGE and used twice the dose of Vioxx than was used in ADVANTAGE. VIGOR was, therefore, a more valid scientific trial to determine relative safety of the two drugs.

This request for and subsequent approval meant that Merck could claim VIOXX was as effective for pain as naproxen. Beginning long before the Advantage trial Merck claimed Vioxx was safer than all NSIADS including naproxen.

While ADVANTAGE was the first study that compared Vioxx to naproxen in OA patients, Merck had completed trials comparing the two drugs in other pain patients.

It is for these reasons that the President of Merck Research Laboratories (MRL) Dr. Scolnick characterized ADVANTAGE as "intellectually redundant."

Merck wrote:

ADVANTAGE was a double-blind, randomized, controlled clinical trial with a legitimate scientific purpose designed to answer previously unanswered questions about the use of VIOXX in osteoarthritis in a primary care setting. It was not a seeding study.

Merck’s personnel called it a seeding trial internally but in an apparent effort to hide its true purpose wrote:

“I eliminated the reference to seeding. It may be a seeding study, but let’s not call it that in our internal documents.”

Merck apparently tried to make it look like a typical science-based clinical trial to mislead IRBs and journals. All seeding trials make some claim to some usually trivial scientific purpose. For example the question of whether or not Vioxx works better on people as a function of height is a scientific question. It is of course a trivial question. In this case Merck had studies that compared Vioxx to naproxen for pain control before the Advantage trial had started. Merck also had a larger trial that tested GI toxicity.

Merck wrote:

ADVANTAGE was important because although the earlier VIOXX clinical trial program provided extensive data on efficacy and safety, it did not include naproxen as a comparison Medication.

This is not correct. Merck had a study that compared Vioxx to naproxen for pain control before the Advantage trial started. This was presented to the FDA in the original New Drug Application and was published in October 1999.

Merck wrote:

The ADVANTAGE clinical trial was designed, conducted, analyzed, interpreted and published by the scientific department of Merck's U.S. Human Health (USHH) organization, Clinical Development (CDP), in conjunction with participating investigators. CDP was part of the Medical and Scientific Affairs department of USHH and was separate from the marketing department within USHH.

A more complete picture is:

USHH was the marketing division of Merck. It included sub-divisions including sales, marketing and a medical/scientific group called CDP. CDP performed “medical” studies that could be used by marketing to increase product sales. These studies were only conducted if favorable results could increase sales. They were not done to obtain new indications for drug use and Merck did not publish or provide the FDA with some of these studies (example 106).

Mr. David Anstice, a marketing executive with no apparent scientific training or background was the President of Merck's USHH division. In contrast Dr. Edward Scolnick, a physician/scientist of international renown, was the President of Merck’s research division which was called Merck Research Laboratories. Mr. Anstice the person ultimately responsible for the Advantage trial testified:

Q. I understand that. All I'm saying is, this is the study [Advantage trial] that was initiated and conducted by marketing, right?
A. Yes, by doctors in marketing.

A picture being worth a 1000 words I provide the Merck graphic for the organization of the Advantage trial:

Here is the power point description of marketing’s role in the Advantage trial:

While the marketing division of USHH set the study “objectives” CDP was in charge of the technical aspects of study implementation.

Further proof that ADVANTAGE served little scientific purpose is the fact that Merck had already claimed that Vioxx was safer than and as effective as all NSAIDS including naproxen prior to the initiation of the ADVANTAGE.

Merck did not rely on any ADVANTAGE results to make any claim about Vioxx efficacy or safety to the FDA. The lack of scientific purpose behind ADVANTAGE is demonstrated by the fact that Merck had withheld the ADVANTAGE results from its application to the FDA that requested a label change that would allow them to claim Vioxx was safer than naproxen. Merck only produced the results after the FDA made numerous oral and written requests for the safety data discovered during the trial.

Merck claims Advantage produced important scientific information:

In the end, ADVANTAGE showed a different gastrointestinal profile between VIOXX and naproxen that was unaffected by concomitant use of aspirin. This was an important medical result for physicians. In addition to measuring the GI tolerability of VIOXX, investigators also monitored patients for adverse events, which were required to be submitted to the FDA. Therefore, in ADVANTAGE, Merck was further evaluating any potential risks of VIOXX.

In fact the trial that Merck performed to test the effect of concomitant aspirin and Vioxx use (136) showed that aspirin use thwarted Vioxx’s GI advantage. (Gastroenterology. 2004 Aug;127(2):395-402.) The conclusion Merck reached based on the Advantage result was wrong precisely because Advantage was not designed to test this question. This conclusion was based on data mining.

Merck wrote:

We also want to underscore that the scientific purpose of ADVANTAGE was properly disclosed to physicians-investigators, participants, and institutional review boards, and Merck's business interests were clearly understood.

Merck never disclosed the marketing purpose of the trial which included the fact that Marketing “set objectives.”

Merck accuses the authors of "bias.”

In this open letter to the editors of The Annals of Internal Medicine, Merck would like to put in perspective the latest article by four authors who served as paid consultants to plaintiffs' lawyers in the VIOXX litigation against Merck. We are troubled by the biased article, which contains numerous inaccuracies, and wonder about the motivation behind this attack on Merck's scientific excellence and integrity.

Merck writes that the authors were “plaintiff witnesses” and “cherry picked” documents. As far as I know, all litigation ended about a year ago. None of the authors were paid on a contingency basis, the authors received no compensation from plaintiffs to work on the papers we have written and none of the authors are working on any Vioxx litigation at this time.

If money motivation equates to bias then it is Merck and its representatives who suffer from this problem. The same cannot be said of Merck or its representatives because while the authors have nothing to gain Merck’s future earnings depend, in some measure, on its reputation for honesty.

Merck does not explain how any theoretical bias impacted on the paper. They have not come forward with contradictory documents or testimony.

The authors agree that all the documents should be made public so readers can decide for themselves if we “cherry picked.” Merck, and Merck alone, continues to block the release of the documents.

Merck would not allow us to cite documents that showed that Advantage investigators were accused of fraud and at least one was convicted. Some of this data was deleted from the published paper but readers and editors were never informed of these problems.

It should be noted that eight Vioxx patients had heart attacks during the ADVANTAGE trial compared to one patient on naproxen. Merck never informed any of these patient volunteers of the cardiovascular risks of Vioxx before or after the trial although the informed consent stated that Merck would pay for treatment of drug related side effects. Unfortunately for some, this would have been funeral costs.

Merck wrote:

It is unfortunate that the authors and journal editors chose not to contact Merck before finalizing these publications. Had any of these individuals contacted Merck, factual errors could have been avoided.

I contacted Merck's main trial lawyer Ted Mayer and provided Merck an opportunity to comment on another paper related to the Advantage trial before it was submitted for publication. I did not send a pre-publication copy to plaintiff lawyers. Mr. Mayer provided comments and i included his comments in the final version.

Merck then complained about my contact to Mr. Mayer to Judge Higbee and requested that she sanction me for contacting their lawyer and then insisted that I make no further contact with them.

-- David Egilman


My own thoughts on all of this are as follows:

The lessons of the Annals article are clear. The scientific community and the public are simply fed up with cavalier practices in the biomedical industry. While the article may affect remaining VIOXX litigation as pointed out here, it also should have an necessary "cleansing effect" on drug R&D.

It was not clinicians and scientists outside the industry who earned it the public's animosity. It was, and continues to be, the industry itself. As Roy Poses observed, there cannot be evidence based medicine if the evidence is distorted by commercial zealotry. I think the public recognizes this.

Further, marketing personnel have no place in pre-approval, pre-marketing scientific studies such as clinical trials. If they have a scientific role, it is perhaps in post-marketing studies, especially post-marketing surveillance for adverse effects. The latter is a function the pharma industry performs poorly.

Even in that latter domain, there must be honesty and transparency, characteristics with which the biases of marketing and its leaders (e.g., towards maximizing sales) may interfere.

Merck's responses to this new Annals article seem the antithesis of science. Instead, the responses appear to be right out of the political and legal warfare playbook (where logical argument prevails - except when presenting logical fallacy is to the advantage of the protagonists) ...

The response has been this:

  • ignore the arguments and evidence [in this case, emails and documents from Merck itself],
  • issue an ad hominem attack,
  • issue slogans ("litigation in the name of science"),
  • present a Red Herring as a distraction,
  • issue accusations of bias,
  • issue accusations of cherry picking,
  • issue accusations of the authors taking evidence "out of context", etc.
and finally:

  • produce no context or new evidence of your own, hoping the above tactics will make that unnecessary.
All that's seemingly missing are ... puppets.

Merck seems to expect the "courtesy" of being allowed to be a participant in any issues written about its conduct, as if the authors of this paper are its employees who under employment policies must permit any pubs they produce to be reviewed internally for approval. I believe the company's executives forget that their authority ends at the front gate.

It is also an odd and even arrogant request, especially considering the way the authors' evidence (Merck's own emails and documents) was essentially ignored in the responses, and the insinuations promulgated against the authors as serving plaintiff's lawyers -- which also implies that scientific integrity and the interest of patients is not their motivation.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, this is classic ad hominem and is insulting to authors in my opinion, as well as insulting to any clinician or scientist. Why would anyone want to provide a company that acts in this manner the courtesy of pre-publication involvement in investigative journalism?

Another issue I find interesting is noted in the limitations section of the paper where it is stated that:

... we did not identify, despite an exhaustive and systematic search strategy, documents detailing discussions between the marketing and research divisions, nor could we identify documents describing contracts between Merck and collaborating companies.

As well as the Annals editor's obervations that:

... despite the large body of documents searched by the authors, they discovered few details about exactly how Merck's marketing division carried out ADVANTAGE.

This is surprising. From an information science standpoint, it would not be unreasonable to believe there might be more related to this trial of a major drug in emails or powerpoints or other documents. This document sparsity could mean that the documents did not exist, but it also raises a speculative question about the document corpus produced in Discovery.

Could "inconvenient documents" have selectively been eliminated from the corpus of documents before it was released, and therefore not be present in the corpus of documents the authors searched? Could the documents the authors did find represent ones that were "missed" by some weeding out effort?

Finally, I believe the entire tenor of Merck's responses - ignoring evidence, stating the trial was "published in a peer reviewed journal" as a Red Herring and a justification of its legitimacy while ignoring Sox & Rennie's (the Annals editors) accompanying commentary Seeding Trials: Just Say "No" , belitting the authors, etc. - is very disturbing.

From "Seeding Trials: Just Say No":

No one told Annals the true purpose of ADVANTAGE. We learned about it when we received a letter to the editor from Dr. David Egilman, who was a consultant to the plaintiffs' attorneys in the civil suits against Merck. He had access to publicly accessible trial documents, which included Merck employees' e-mail messages that disclosed the true intent of the ADVANTAGE trial ... The article provides clear evidence that the intent of ADVANTAGE was to increase prescriptions of Vioxx (the study outcome of greatest interest to Merck seems to have been Vioxx prescribing rates) ... The documents do tell us that deception is the key to a successful seeding trial.

When I review NIH grant applications, if I suspect deception I will mention it to the study section leaders, and I can assure that if deception is verified higher up the chain, that application will not get funded (at the very least). I can also assure that legitimate medical journals do not willingly publish studies involving deception.

Merck's responses to the Annals article seem to represent a belief that the public (laypeople and physicians) are stupid and gullible.

This is not science, and is not a path to a return to the corporate greatness and respect that Merck once enjoyed and had earned.

Finally, a Red Herring of my own:

-- SS


Anonymous said...

Merck's behavior is just the tip of the iceberg of deceit and deception. Of course not all the documents were discovered; only those that were least incriminating were available for discovery. Hopefully, these revelations about Merck's use of deceit and deception to make a buck will lead to flight from its stocks and bond offerings. Patients, physicians, and the general public will be better off without Merck hawking unsafe products.

InformaticsMD said...

To be fair, this issue applies to all pharmaceutical, biotech and device companies.

Are they doing "seeding studies?"

I believe the issue merits further investigation from some very high perches.