Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Abilify Runs Amok, Runs Stealth Safety Campaign in Medical Journal

Furious Seasons has a rather distressing piece of news from a recent Bristol-Myers Squibb conference call. To sum it up quickly, BMS claims that 10.6% of depressed patients are now receiving atypical antipsychotics. Of those 10.6%, 21.7% are taking Abilify. So that would mean roughly 10-11 in 100 depressed patients are taking antipsychotics and 2 of them are on Abilify. I shudder to think how many are on Seroquel. Or Zyprexa. It made me think of a post I wrote a few weeks ago in which I described the marketing of Abilify for depression. A huge market of depressed people just ripe for the picking.

Going along with this, BMS is pushing back on the issue of akathisa, the side effect that has garnered the drug much bad publicity (at least in the blog world; 1, 2, 3) via a medical journal article that distracts attention from Abilify as an akathisia-inducer. More on that to come soon. Ghostwriters, ignoring contradictory evidence; basically, an attempt to completely obscure the evidence on the topic. It's not the first time BMS has successfully placed a study with major flaws into a medical journal (1, 2). Details will be forthcoming.

Friday, April 17, 2009

David Healy: Marketing, Bipolar, and Biobabble

In an interview with Chrisopher Lane on Psychology Today's blog, David Healy covers the gamut, including the marketing techniques used to pimp Zyprexa, academic spokespersons/key opinion leaders, and bipolar diagnoses run amok. I've been a fan of Healy's work for a long time, but this interview in particular is captivating. Some will claim that Healy is a "bipolar denialist" -- he states that bipolar is overdiagnosed and that the disorder is entirely misunderstood. The fur will continue to fly on bipolarity for years to come, or at least until drug companies run out of products to push for as "mood stabilizers." In the interest of being fair and balanced, Nassir Ghaemi has a rebuttal to Healy's opinion that is also worth reading.

Though I'm tempted to provide a snippet here, I'll instead direct readers to the interview. After a very interesting interview with Philip Dawdy, and now one with David Healy (and other interesting posts), I am really glad the Psychology Today has Christopher Lane on board. I'm sure some people are not pleased with Lane interviewing two of the more prominent critics of modern psychiatry. Giving both of them an outlet to express their views at length runs the risk of Lane being labeled as a Scientologist, as "antipsychiatry," a pharmascold, and as a general rabble-rouser. Good for him. Nice to see that a fairly mainstream publication is willing to step outside the box.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Abilify Marketing Blitz: Atypical Antipsychotics Gone Wild

"The results are extremely unimpressive; they just squeak by," says Massachusetts psychiatrist Daniel Carlat, editor of the respected Carlat Psychiatry Report. For a clinician or a patient's family, the difference between those on Abilify and those who took a placebo "would be hard to actually see," he adds.

Dr. Carlat is referring to the comparison between Abilify and placebo in the treatment of depression, a topic I have discussed in depth previously (1 , 2 , 3, 4). The above quote comes from a Melissa Healy piece in the Los Angeles Times that throws a damper on Abilify's parade through depression.

Another Melissa Healy piece from the LA Times starts off as follows:
About a year ago, patients began trooping into the office of UCLA psychiatrist Andrew Leuchter, asking whether an antipsychotic drug called Abilify "might be right for them." Few appeared to be delusional, plagued by hallucinations or suffering fearsome mood swings. Mostly, they were depressed or anxious, and frustrated by the pace of their recovery.

Leuchter wondered what was up: Depressed patients didn't usually seek out drugs used to quell psychiatry's most disturbing symptoms.

What was up, he soon discovered, was spending on a new advertising campaign touting Abilify as an "add-on" treatment for depression. For the first time since the arrival of a new generation of antipsychotic medications -- six drugs called the "atypicals" because they work differently from the earlier generation of antipsychotic drugs -- the makers of one, Abilify, had been granted the legal right to market to a vast new population of patients beyond those with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
Here's Bristol-Myers Squibb's advertisement for the drug:

This is classic. BMS notes that two-thirds of depressed patients who take antidepressants will still have symptoms after a course of antidepressants. And they have a point: Antidepressants ain't exactly miracle pills. So the commercial implies that Abilify must be really helpful... But if patients add Abilify to their treatment regimen, then only about 25% of them experience remission of depressive symptoms. Isn't it a bit strange that Abilify is appealing to the two-thirds of patients who still have depressive symptoms after taking an antidepressant and offering them a treatment that will lead to remission for only one-quarter of them? Of course, no studies have compared adding Abilify to adding another antidepressant, adding psychotherapy, adding an exercise routine, or adding anything except a placebo. Oh, and given that Abilify led to remission of symptoms in about 25% of patients, while placebo led to remission in about 15% of patients, um, that's a pretty small difference. And keep in mind that the studies were designed in a manner that was almost sure to find a benefit for Abilify, as I have noted previously.

If Abilify was generally benign, then a relatively small benefit over placebo is acceptable.
But, as I mentioned previously, the side effects are troubling. I took issue with a BMS-funded journal article/puff piece that tried to spin side effect data on Abilify:
The authors note that "adjunctive aripiprazole is relatively well-tolerated in patients with MDD." Relatively? Relative to what -- being hit with a baseball bat repeatedly? They note that akathisia occurred in 25% of patients on Abilify compared to 4% of patients on placebo. Restlessness: 12% vs. 2%; insomnia: 8% vs. 3%; fatigue: 8% vs. 4%; blurred vision: 6% vs 1%. The authors report that akathisia resolved in 52% of patients by the end of the study, which would also mean that for 48% of patients with akathisia, they were stuck with it at the end of the study. But don't worry, it's "relatively well-tolerated."
You gotta like any drug that induces akathisia at the same rate that it induces symptom remission. Psychiatrist Doug Bremner had a similar take on Abilify as showing a poor cost-benefit ratio. For a few descriptions of akathisia, see comments at this post on Furious Seasons.

Given the unimpressive scientific data regarding Abilify for depression on one hand and the drug's exploding sales on the other, I was sure glad to see a big paper such as the LA Times note that there really is a controversy here. And if Seroquel receives official FDA approval as an add-on treatment for depression, get ready for the marketing machine to reach a fever pitch. Viva Zyprexa, anyone? Melissa Healy covers the expansion of atypical antipsychotics from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder into depression in an article that y'all simply must read. I'll close with a sad-but-true quote from Yale psychiatry professor Robert Rosenheck:
The story's pretty clear, and pretty embarrassing for the profession of psychiatry, which has allowed itself to be led by marketing," says Robert Rosenheck, a psychiatrist at Yale University who has studied the effectiveness and expanded use of the atypical antipsychotics. "We know now what these companies' strategies are: The number of people with schizophrenia is limited, so the road to profitability goes through soccer moms. They need to market these drugs to ordinary people who have dissatisfactions in life.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Leading Psychiatrist Slammed in Leading Journal

In the latest American Journal of Psychiatry appears a review of Allison Bass's book Side Effects. As many of my readers undoubtedly recall, the book details the saga of the antidepressant drug paroxetine (Paxil) and the troubled line of "research" used to support its use in children (among other points). The reviewer clearly liked the book, which is not necessarily newsworthy. What is notable is that a book review appearing in perhaps the world's leading psychiatry journal slams a leading member of the psychiatry profession. The reviewer, Dr. Spencer Eth, writes the following:
More recently, psychiatrists have been greeted in the morning with front-page newspaper exposés of huge sums being directed by these same drug companies to the physician leaders of our field. In Side Effects: A Prosecutor, a Whistleblower, and a Bestselling Antidepressant on Trial, journalist Alison Bass has written the powerful story of a leading medication, its manufacturer, and a favored psychiatrist, whose driving force was profit not treatment.
Ouch. Though not naming the psychiatrist directly, it is clearly a reference to Martin Keller, bigwig at Brown University, whose work on one particular study regarding Paxil was the subject of a lengthy prior post. For the collection of my posts related to Dr. Keller, please click here.

Back to the review...
This well-told cautionary lacks the excitement of a novel but instead informs the reader with an actual case study with the real names of psychiatrists we know. We can see exactly how corporate greed, drug-company-sponsored clinical research, and mental health care become a toxic mix that inevitably damages our patients’ well being, our colleagues’ reputations, and our profession’s good name.
It was a refreshing surprise to see Martin Keller's goose get cooked in this review. I don't mean to sound vindictive or meanspirited. Keller has done a lot of work over the course of his career, much of which likely has some redeeming value. That being said, there can be little doubt that some of his "science" is quite dubious. And for a major psychiatry journal to run anything, even a book review, that directly goes after a "key opinion leader" who appears quite culpable in performing bad science -- that's a good sign.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Vioxx Hit Squad

"We may need to seek them out and destroy them where they live." The words of a Merck employee regarding people who dared to criticize its bestkilling, er, bestselling painkiller/heart attack inducer Vioxx.

According to The Australian , Merck

...made a hit list of doctors who had to be "neutralised" or discredited because they criticised the anti-arthritis drug the pharmaceutical giant produced. Staff at US company Merck & Co emailed each other about the list of doctors - mainly researchers and academics - who had been negative about the drug Vioxx or Merck and a recommended course of action.

The email, which came out in the Federal Court in Melbourne yesterday as part of a class action against the drug company, included the words "neutralise", "neutralised" or "discredit" against some of the doctors' names.

More about this and similar tales of evil at Before You Take That Pill. You might recall that the superhero team in videos used to train Vioxx sales reps was known as the V-Squad. Perhaps the V-Squad was sent out to "destroy them where they live?" Check out the V-Squad videos here and decide for yourself.