Pioglitazone Conundrum: Should The Drug Regulator Step Over The Line?

Recent order of the Indian drug regulator to withdraw all formulations of the well known, yet controversial, anti-diabetic drug – Pioglitazone from the domestic market has created a flutter in the country, ruffling many feathers at the same time.

Withdrawal of any drug from the market involves well-considered findings based on ongoing robust pharmacovigilance data since the concerned product launch. To ascertain long-term drug safety profile, this process is universally considered as important as the processes followed for high quality drug manufacturing and even for R&D.

A paper titled, “Withdrawing Drugs in the U.S. Versus Other Countries” brings to the fore that one of the leading causes of deaths in the United States is adverse drug reaction. Assessing enormity and impact of this issue, the United Nations General Assembly for the first time in 1979 decided to publish a list of banned pharmaceutical products that different countries may use for appropriate decisions keeping patients’ safety in mind, as they will deem necessary from time to time.

An interesting finding:

Quite interestingly, the paper also highlights:

“There are a number of pharmaceuticals on the market in the USA that have been banned elsewhere and similarly, there are some drug products that have been banned in the United States, but remain on the market in other countries.”

Different policies in different countries:

The reason for the above finding is mainly because, various countries follow different policies to address this important health related issue. For example, though the United States will withdraw drugs based on the decision taken by its own FDA, it will also compare the action taken by countries like, UK, Japan, Australia and Sweden on the same subject.

However, many experts do believe that United Nations must take greater initiative to make all concerned much more aware about the UN list of dangerous drugs, which should be continuously updated to expect the least.

Need transparency in pharmacovigilance:

Pharmacovigilance has been defined as:

“The task of monitoring the safety of medicines and ensuring that the risks of a medicine do not outweigh the benefits, in the interests of public health.”

An article on Pharmacovigilance by A.C. (Kees) van Grootheest and Rachel L. Richesson highlights as follows:

“The majority of post marketing study commitments are never initiated, and the completion of post marketing safety studies (i.e., phase IV studies) declined from 62% between 1970 and 1984 to 24% between 1998 and 2003.”

Thus, in many countries, due to lack of required transparency in the pharmacovigilance process, harmful drugs continue to remain in the market for many years before they are withdrawn, for various reasons.

The above paper strongly recommends, “While there might be monetary benefits for each country in keeping these drugs on the market, the U.N. must step up the visibility of the withdrawal of dangerous drugs list.”

Recent Pioglitazone withdrawal in India:

Recently in India, the Ministry of Health under Section 26A of the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940 has suspended the manufacture and sale of Pioglitazone, along with two other drugs, with immediate effect, through a notification issued on June 18, 2013.

As per the Drugs and Cosmetic Rule 30-B, import and marketing of all those drugs, which are prohibited in the country of origin, is banned in India. Just as in the United States, the Ministry of health, while taking such decisions in India, compares long-term safety profile of the concerned drugs in countries like, USA, UK, EU and Australia.

A Parliamentary Standing Committee of India has already indicted the drug regulator for not taking prompt action on such issues to protect patients’ treatment safety.

Pioglitazone: the risk profile:

In India:

A leading medical journal (JAPI) cautions:

“Given the possible risk of bladder cancer, physicians have to be extremely careful about using pioglitazone indiscriminately in the future.”

The JAPI article continues to state:

“We require more robust data on the risk of bladder cancer with pioglitazone and Indian studies are clearly needed. Till that time, we may continue the use of this drug as a second or third line glucose-lowering agent. In all such cases, the patient should be adequately informed about this adverse effect and drug should be used in as small a dose as possible, with careful monitoring and follow up.”

In the USA:

In 2011 The US FDA as a part of its ongoing safety review of pioglitazone informed physicians and the public that use of this drug for more than 12 months is linked to an increased risk of bladder cancer.

The USFDA review is reportedly based on “an ongoing 10-year observational cohort study as well as a nested, case-control study of the long-term risk of bladder cancer in over 193,000 patients with diabetes who are members of the Kaiser Permanente Northern California (KPNC) health plan.”

Based on this finding US FDA directed that physicians should:

  • Not use pioglitazone in patients with active bladder cancer.
  • Use pioglitazone with caution in patients who have a prior history of bladder cancer, adding, “The benefits of blood sugar control with pioglitazone should be weighed against the unknown risks for cancer recurrence.”
  • Tell patients to report any signs or symptoms of “blood in the urine, urinary urgency, pain on urination, or back or abdominal pain, as these may be due to bladder cancer.”
  • Urge patients to read the pioglitazone medication guide.
  • Report adverse events involving pioglitazone medicines to the FDA MedWatch program.

The moot point:

Considering the above US FDA directives in the Indian context, the moot point therefore is, whether it will be possible for the drug regulator to ensure that physicians and the patients in India follow such steps for drug safety with pioglitazone?

In Canada:

Another new Canadian study has again reportedly linked Pioglitazone with risks of bladder cancer and cautioned, “physicians, patients and regulatory agencies should be aware of this association when assessing the overall risks and benefits of this therapy.”

Pioglitazone and its combinations banned in France and Germany:

After a government-funded study, tracking diabetics from 2006 to 2009, concluded that Pioglitazone increases bladder cancer risk, the French Medicines Agency (FMA) announced withdrawal of Pioglitazone along with its fixed-dose combination with Metformin, as well.

FMA also advised doctors to stop prescribing Pioglitazone, plain or in combination, and asked patients, who are on this drug to consult their doctors immediately.

Simultaneously, German health authorities also acted on similar lines.

An intriguing comment by the Indian drug regulator:

Keeping all these in view, it is indeed intriguing to note that the Indian drug regulator is reportedly open to re-examine the case of pioglitazone and revoking its ban in India, if strong scientific evidences emerge in support of safety and efficacy of the drug.

However, the question then comes up is what more new scientific evidences that the Indian drug regulator is now expecting, especially when the pharmacovigilance studies are almost non-existent in India?

Moreover, such comments of the drug regulator not only prompt raising doubts about the fragility and hastiness of his own decision of banning Pioglitazone in India, but also amply demonstrate lack of seriousness in his part on this extremely important decision on drug safety?

‘Drug Product Liability Claims’ in India virtually non-existant:

In most of the developed countries, appropriate regulations are in place for product liability claims.

Under this law, if any patient suffers injury in any form while administering  a pharmaceutical drug, the patient concerned is eligible to make pharmaceutical-drug-based product liability claims, which usually involve a huge amount of money by any imaginable standard.

These claims are based on:

  • Improperly marketed pharmaceutical drugs. This category includes:

- Failure to provide adequate or accurate warnings regarding a dangerous side effect.

- Failure to provide adequate instructions on safe and appropriate use of the drug.

- The “bad advice”, which may have been given by the manufacturer or by a doctor, pharmacist, sales rep, or some other medical provider.

In the United States drug safety and effectiveness related litigations reportedly also include:

-        Criminal and civil complaints brought by the U.S. Department of Justice.

-        Lawsuits brought by state Attorney Generals and private plaintiffs under state consumer protection acts and other causes of action.

In India, closer to the above system there is a law in paper, named as “Products Liability”. This law deals with the liability of manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors, and vendors for injury to a person or property caused by dangerous or defective products. The aim of this law is to help protecting consumers from dangerous or defective products, while holding manufacturers, distributors, and retailers responsible for putting into the market place products that they knew or should have known were dangerous or defective. However, in reality, there are hardly any damages slapped by consumers on to the manufacturers in India under this ‘Product Liability’ law.

It may sound however bizarre, but is a hard fact that many drugs in Fixed Dose Combinations (FDCs) had never even gone through any form clinical trials on human volunteers before they were for the first time allowed to be marketed in India by the drug regulators.

In absence of any active steps taken by the government to educate and encourage patients to make use of this law, patients, by and large, would continue to pay a heavy price for their ignorance, keeping their mouth shut all the way, while using:

- Defectively manufactured pharmaceutical drugs.

- Pharmaceutical drugs with dangerous side effects.

- And even improperly marketed pharmaceutical drugs.

As stated before, it is worth repeating, neither is their any functional pharmacovigilance system in place in India.

Drug product liability suit for Pioglitazone in the United States:

Just to cite an example, one report indicates:

“According to court filings, all of the Actos (Pioglitazone) lawsuits pending in the Western District of Louisiana allege Takeda Pharmaceuticals failed to provide adequate warnings to doctors and patients regarding the drug’s association with an increased risk of bladder cancer. Last month (April, 2013), the nation’s first trial involving Actos bladder cancer allegations ended with a Los Angeles Superior Court jury awarding $6.5 million to a plaintiff who was diagnosed with the disease after taking the drug for four years”. However, the judge overseeing the case granted Takeda Pharmaceuticals’ request to set aside the verdict.

The report also indicates, ‘more than 1,200 Actos bladder cancer claims are pending in the Louisiana litigation. Additional Actos lawsuits have been filed in state litigations in California and Illinois.’

Indian doctors and manufacturers protest together against Pioglitazone ban:

It is equally intriguing to note, despite serious life threatening side-effect and restricted usage profile of Pioglitazone, as established internationally through robust and large clinical studies, both the doctors and the Pioglitazone manufacturers in India are urging the government to lift ban on this drug immediately, keeping the silent patient community in the front line, as usually happens all over.

news report highlighted that ‘doctors flayed the ban on anti-diabetes drug Pioglitazone and requested the Centre to reverse its decision in interest of patients.’

Another media report highlighted, major drug makers are strongly opposing the move of the government to ban Pioglitazone, in India.

Conclusion:

Without generating another set of robust evidence proving contrary to what has been already concluded in the United States and EU based on strong supporting pharmacovigilance data, if the Indian drug regulator revokes the ban of Pioglitazone, it will be construed as a huge compromise with patients’ safety interest with this drug.

This issue assumes even greater importance, when the ‘drug product liability’ system is almost dysfunctional in India.

The other alternative of the drug regulator is to revoke the ban, wilting under combined pressure of the manufacturers and doctors and ask for safety warnings trying to emulate, as it were, what has been done by the US FDA.  

In which case, with full knowledge that it is virtually impossible for any one to comply with the above US FDA requirements in India, will the drug regulator not step over the line, yet again?

By: Tapan J. Ray

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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