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Anemia Drugs For Cancer Patients

Posted by medconsumers on March 13, 2008

Testimony Submitted to FDA Oncologic Drugs Advisory Committee Meeting
March 13, 2008

Maryann Napoli, Associate Director, Center for Medical Consumers

As a consumer advocate who attended the May ODAC meeting, I came away wondering why these drugs remain on the market. They cause some patients to die sooner. They have many other risks that are severe and well documented, and any quality-of-life benefit has yet to be proven. The FDA approved the first ESA because it reduced the percentage of patients transfused. But the agency has since acknowledged that the infectious disease risks of a blood transfusion are far lower now than they were in 1993.

No doubt there are many cancer patients who see these drugs as an instant cure for chemotherapy-induced fatigue or as the means of allowing chemotherapy to continue. The former indication was fostered by Johnson & Johnson’s fraudulent ad campaign for Procrit, which continued for seven years in the mainstream TV and print media. I urge ODAC to discuss the misconceptions imparted by these ads and to consider recommending that the FDA require J&J to run a corrective ad campaign.

The ability of a cancer patient to make a truly informed decision with the help of her oncologist is seriously compromised by J&J’s and Amgen’s reprehensible practice of offering rebates—that is, kickbacks—to oncologists. Patients are always encouraged to discuss their treatment decisions with their doctors. Yet it’s hard for patients to believe oncologists’ recommendations are unbiased when they are “reaping millions” from the prescription of anemia drugs, as The N.Y. Times reported last May. (1) Companies that give kickbacks and other financial incentives intended to manipulate oncologists into using the most expensive drugs are poisoning the doctor/patient relationship.

Where can people turn for unbiased information? It should be the FDA, but it’s not clear to me that black box warnings are the way to go. The changes in the product labeling in 2004 did not change clinical practice. (2) And what do we know about the effects of black box warnings on the ones who need them the most—the cancer patients? The cancer patient should be given scientifically accurate, written information about ESA well before she needs it. The time to weigh the risks and benefits is not when she’s awaiting her next chemo treatment and just learned that her hemoglobin is too low for the next round.

Patients cannot make truly informed decisions unless they are given quantitative information to help them decide whether ESA is appropriate. They need to know, for example, the chances of…1) needing a transfusion; 2) suffering harm by foregoing a transfusion, 3) experiencing a serious adverse effect from the transfusion itself, and 4) having a severe adverse effect from the ESA. Patients need to know the magnitude of each of these four risks. Telling them that ESA will reduce their risk of having a blood transfusion is simply too vague. It gives them no way to compare this purported benefit with the other risks of taking ESA. If the FDA will not remove these drugs from the market, it must find the best ways to get clearly written, accurate quantitative ESA information to cancer patients.

(1) Berenson A, Pollack A. “Doctors Reap Millions for Anemia Drugs.” N.Y. Times, May 9, 2007

(2) Blau AC. “Erythropoietin in Cancer: Presumption of Innocence?” Stem Cells 2007; 25;2094-2097; originally published online Apr 26, 2007.

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