Thursday, August 13, 2009

Who Investigated the Case of the Deadly Contaminated Heparin?

A year and a half ago, we posted quite a bit about the case of the deadly contaminated heparin. In retrospect, what is most amazing is how quickly this case fell off the radar screen.

Summary of the Case of the Deadly Contaminated Heparin

Here is a summary:

- We have posted several times, recently here and here, about the tragic case of suddenly allergenic heparin. Although heparin, an intravenous biologic anti-coagulant, has been in use for over 70 years, serious allergic reactions to it had heretofore been rare. Starting late last year, hundreds of such reactions, and now 21 deaths were reported in the US after intravenous heparin infusions.All the heparin related to these events in the US was made by Baxter International.
- We then learned that although the heparin carried the Baxter label, it was not really made by Baxter. The company had outsourced production of the active ingredient to a long, and ultimately mysterious supply chain. Baxter got the active ingredient from a US company,
Scientific Protein Laboratories LLC, which in turn obtained it from a factory in China operated by Changzhou SPL, which in turn was owned by Scientific Protein Laboratories and by Changzhou Techpool Pharmaceutical Co. Changzhou SPL, in turn, got it from several consolidators or wholesalers, who in turn got it from numerous small, unidentified "workshops," which seemed to produce the product in often primitive and unsanitary conditions. None of the stops in the Chinese supply chain had apparently been inspected by the US Food and Drug Administration nor its Chinese counterpart.
- Most recently, we found out that the Baxter International labelled heparin was contaminated with over-sulfated chondroitin sulfate, a substance not found in nature, but which mimics heparin according to the simple laboratory tests used in the Chinese facilities to check incoming heparin. (See post
here.) Further testing revealed that the contamination seemed to have taken place in China prior to the provision of the heparin to Changzhou SPL. (See post here.) It is not clear whether Baxter International or Scientific Protein Laboratories had inspected most of the steps in the supply chain, or even knew what went on there.
- The Baxter and Scientific Protein Laboratories CEOs did not seem aware of where they got the heparin on which the Baxter International label was eventually affixed. But one report in the New York Times alleged that Scientific Protein Laboratories would not pay enough for heparin to satisfy any sources other than the small "workshops."
- Leaders of all organizations involved, Baxter International, Scientific Protein Laboratories, Changzhou SPL, the Chinese government, and the US Food and Drug Administration, and the US Congress assigned blame to each other, but none took individual or organizational responsibility. (See post

Since we last posted about the case, three prominent articles by one research group appeared that addressed how contamination of the heparin with oversulfated chondroitin sulfate lead to adverse reactions, some fatal (1-3). An editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine congratulated all the scientists on quickly figuring out the nature of the problem, "allowing heparin to come clean," but did not comment on what the case might mean for drug regulation, or the leadership of health care organizations.(4) The case was used to illustrate the difficulties of national regulation of an increasingly out-sourced pharmaceutical industry.(5) Dr Jerry Avorn did call for more effective, better funded and up to date pharmaceutical regulation.(6)

At the time, I thought that the most striking feature of this case, beyond the deaths of many real patients, was how every leader involved tried to dodge accountability for it. Now, in August, 2009, I have been unable to discover whether any of them subsequently took accountability for it. And in this post global financial collapse world, I would now add that the case also exemplifies the adverse effects of the single-minded pursuit of short-term profit and economic efficiency.

However, in retrospect, the most distressing aspect of this case is its lack of repercussions, specifically, the lack of any inquiry into how the oversulfated chondroitin sulfate got into the supposedly pure heparin given to patients, and how such adulteration of pharmaceuticals could be prevented in the future.

Allegations of Conflicts of Interest Affecting the Scientific Investigation of the Case

This week, however, the case has an eerie echo. The Wall Street Journal just reported allegations that the US FDA official involved in the case has conflicts of interest.
The investigation of Janet Woodcock, the director of the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, stems from an ethics complaint filed by Amphastar Pharmaceuticals Inc., a California company that says it has been delayed in its six-year effort to win approval for a generic version of Lovenox, a multi-billion-dollar blood thinner.

In its complaint, Amphastar alleges that its competitor had special access to Dr. Woodcock at critical times in the prolonged approval process, which is ongoing. Amphastar points out that Dr. Woodcock co-authored a scientific paper with scientists at Momenta Pharmaceuticals Inc. while both companies were battling to win FDA approval of their generic blood thinners.

Amphastar contends that Dr. Woodcock's collaboration with Momenta is a conflict of interest and has asked that she recuse herself from the entire matter at the FDA.

Both Amphastar and Momenta, which is based in Cambridge, Mass., submitted applications seeking FDA approval of their generic versions of Lovenox heparin sold by Sanofi-Aventis SA. Amphastar applied in 2003, two years before Momenta.

Lovenox, a low-molecular-weight heparin, is a blockbuster biologic drug that brought in $3.5 billion in world-wide sales last year.
The specific allegations were:

Amphastar, in letters sent to the FDA in April and June, cited some public contacts and email between Dr. Woodcock and one of Momenta's founders, Massachusetts Institute of Technology biological engineering professor Ram Sasisekharan, beginning in February 2007. Among those contacts were their attendance at an international medical conference in Thailand in November 2007.

Mainly, however, Amphastar points to Dr. Sasisekharan's appointment to lead an FDA task force in early 2008, which put him and Momenta in regular contact with the agency. That task force was investigating tainted Chinese-made heparin, a crisis that led to nearly 100 deaths.

Drs. Woodcock and Sasisekharan, along with other Momenta scientists, then co-authored two medical journal articles last year identifying the cause of the contaminated Chinese heparin imports, a finding that won scientific -- as well as Wall Street -- kudos for Momenta.

It is unusual for FDA officials to co-author journal articles with industry researchers....

In April 2008, after the tainted-heparin article was published, an investment report from Morgan Stanley cited Momenta's FDA connection as a 'game-changer,' and Momenta's stock jumped 17% in a day.
So, Dr Woodstock arranged for the scientific investigation of the contaminated heparin to be carried out mainly by people employed by or with financial relationships with Momenta Pharmaceuticals. The (actually three) articles published as a result of this investigation (1-3), disclosed most of these relationships, but seemed to minimize the relationship of the senior author of all three articles, Dr Ram Sasiskekharan, to the company. Although he was actually a co-founder of the company, and has been on the board of directors of the company since 2001,
none of the articles mentioned the former relationship, and only one specifically mentioned the latter. Although the two New England Journal of Medicine articles referred to Momenta Pharmaceuticals' abilities to analyze "complex mixtures, including heparin," none mentioned that the company is developing two anticoagulant products, M-enoxaparin and M118, which could compete with heparin (as described in the company's investor relationships web-page).

On the other hand, the Nature Biotech article(3) noted that Dr Sasiskekharan and one other author have "served as scientific advisors to Scientific Protein Laboratories," and a third author was a scientific advisor to Baxter International. The relationship between Dr Sasiskekharan and SPL was noted by two of the New England Journal articles(1-2).

Questions Raised

So the complaint about Dr Woodcock by Amphastar raises multiple questions about the investigation of the case of the deadly contaminated heparin.
  • Why did the FDA put the scientific investigation of Baxter International/ Scientific Protein Laboratories / Changzhou SPL contaminated heparin in the hands of multiple employees, and the co-founder and board member of Momenta Pharmaceuticals, a company that applied to market a product to compete with heparin?
  • Was the nature of this apparent conflict clear to the federal agencies that also funded the investigation, which included the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)?
  • Did the federal agencies involved also realize that several of the investigators, including the apparent senior investigator, also had ties to two companies (Baxter International and Scientific Protein Laboratories) involved in the production of the contaminated heparin?
  • If the federal agencies did not know of the conflicts, why not? And what will they do about them now?
  • If the federal agencies did know of all the conflicts, why did they allow such a conflicted group of scientists to investigate one of the most important cases of drug adulteration of the new century?
Although there has now been a scientific investigation into the nature of the contamination of the deadly heparin, there has not been any formal inquiry of which I am aware into the actions, decisions and events that allowed the case to unfold. Now that the case seems to involve not only questionable business management decisions, but also a conflicted scientific investigation, maybe someone in authority will see to it that such an investigation occurs.

Finally, the case of the deadly contaminated heparin now becomes another illustration of how the complex web of conflicts of interest that pervades our health care system may muddle efforts to protect the public from adulterated medicines, one of the more fundamental public health responsibilities of the government.

Hat tip to and see further comments by Prof Margaret Soltan in the University Diaries blog.


1. Kishimoto TK, Viswanathan K, Ganguly T, Elankumaran S, Smith S, Pelzer K et al. Contaminated heparin associated with adverse clinical events and activation of the contact system. N Engl J Med 2008; 358: 2457-67. [Link here.]
2. Blossom DB, Kallen AJ, Patel PR, Elward A, Robinson L, Gao G et al. Outbreak of adverse reactions associated with contaminated heparin. N Engl J Med 2008; 359: 2674-84. [Link here.]
3. Guerrini M, Becaati D, Shriver Z, Naggi A, Viswanathan K, Bisio A et al. Oversulfated chondroitin sulfate is a contaminant in heparin associated with adverse clinical events. Nature Biotech 2008; 26: 669-675. [Link here.]
4. Schwartz LB. Heparin comes clean. N Engl J Med 2008; 358: 2505-9. [Link here.]
5. Schweitzer SO. Trying times at the FDA - the challenge of ensuring the safety of imported pharmaceuticals. N Engl J Med 2008; 358: 1773-7. [Link here.]
6. Avorn J. Coagulation and adulteration - building on science and policy lessons from 1905. N Engl J Med 2008; 358: 2429-31. [Link here.]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

And if conflicts are not enough we have this soap opera from Daily Finance: Pfizer's Neurontin: Epilepsy meds have never been this sexy
Melly Alazraki
Aug 12th 2009 at 7:30PM

"Neurontin's saga began over a decade ago, but in 2004, when Warner-Lambert (which Pfizer acquired in 2000) paid a $430 million fine for promoting it off-label as a painkiller, many assumed Pfizer's own headache over. They were wrong. It's 2009 and just recently, on July 27, the first of 1,200 cases relating to Neurontin began."

In the case sighted in the article a woman took her own life and was found by her then five year old daughter. Pfizer claimed their drug was not responsible. Pressing on with the case the family withdrew after the first day in court due to an anonymous donor setting up a trust for the child. Complicated enough but Pfizer then claims vindication.

But then:

"So just when you thought this leg of the story was over, the one testimony in the shortened trial, if true, sounds like a scene out of Michael Clayton. Opening witness David Franklin, a former marketing employee of Warner-Lambert and the whistle blower in the 2004 Neurontin case, testified that on Monday afternoon a person who presented himself as a detective on behalf of Pfizer came to his home, blocked his driveway and threatened him, his wife and his young daughter. "We were all, quite frankly, terrified," BNET quoted the court transcripts.

Who was this detective? Apparently a former CIA agent named James Danforth who had been employed by Pfizer's lawyers. The lawyers of the pharmaceutical company apologized for anything inappropriate, saying it wasn't the intention."


"BNET adds one last thought. "Despite having gone generic years ago, Neurontin's 2008 sales were $387 million." The plaintiff had an explanation for the sales: "Overall, 'off-label' sales of Neurontin have steadily increased since 1998, and from 2000 to the present have consistently remained at 93 percent to 94 percent of all sales. Actual sales for approved uses have declined."Well, it's certainly true the biggest pharmaceutical in the world, about to get bigger with the Wyeth (WYE) acquisition, is far from being an angel or having its hands totally clean. But would it really risk such behavior for a drug already gone off-patent? If so, what does it say about its behavior regarding the other drugs?There are far too many mysteries in this case than answers. Who paid off the plaintiffs? Why did a former-CIA agent contact the witness? How much did Pfizer know about increased suicide thoughts, if at all, before the label was added? Did Pfizer cross the line with Franklin, with patients? Maybe some day we'll get partial answers to a few of these questions. I'm not holding my breath."

So now we don't just corrupt officials, we use a little muscle to make our point.

Steve Lucas