Reticence Around Unveiling Clinical Trials

While scanning through various publications, we now get to know, almost at regular intervals, about new clinical trials capturing the newer ways of treating different ailments. Such information instils an invigorating hope in the minds of doctors and the patients alike, to more successfully and predictably fight the battle against diseases in the ongoing pursuit for a better quality of life.

However, for independent and impartial assessment of any new drug before it comes to the market, an ethical and transparent process of unveiling clinical trials, sans any reticence whatsoever, are absolutely essential. Only this process would be able to satisfactorily establish, beyond an iota of doubt, the safety and efficacy levels of, especially, the new drugs. To move in that direction, the fundamental requirements will be diligently recording and publishing all types of data – positive, not so positive, and also negative, arising out of all clinical trials, conducted anywhere in the world, for the same drug.

Thus, there should be a system of open access to all clinical trial data, as each trial is completed. Otherwise, pharma companies’ publication bias, overwhelmingly on positive results, would continue, as alleged by many across the world. It is worth noting that over 60 percent of all clinical trials for new drugs are sponsored by the pharma and biotech companies.

There isn’t any dearth of examples of new drugs’ getting not just the required regulatory approval, riding on the back of robust ‘positive’ clinical trial data on safety and efficacy, but also becoming highly dependable money-spinners for the companies, and in no time, as it were. These cash churning new brands would also get well protected for monopolistic pricing all through their respective patent life, and sometimes even after that, in various different ways.

Nevertheless, at a later date, mostly post patent expiry, not all pre-launch new drug trials could be universally accepted as robust and conclusive, especially on their efficacy and safety claims. On the contrary, a number of detailed and deep-stick independent studies indicate that some new drugs are, in fact, much less effective, if not ineffective, and cause more serious side effects than what were published earlier.

Hence, some critical questions are now being asked by many stakeholders, with greater assertiveness than ever before and backed by solid evidence, in this arena. Although it has now started creating a snowballing effect, still, nothing much seems to have changed on the ground, just yet.

Why aren’t all clinical trial results, and for all new drugs not still published, or otherwise made available for public scrutiny, unveiled, and of course after protecting any reasonable commercial interest? Does business consideration, then continue to prevail over the need for transparency in clinical trial data disclosure for patients’ health and safety? The sneaking fear behind the reasons of this reticence of pharma players, in general, continues to torment many. I shall discuss this point in this article backed by recently published data.

Not a recent trend:

This isn’t a recent trend either, and continuing for decades, without any effective remedial measures by the appropriate authorities. I would give just a couple of examples, one from 1998 and the other from 2014, to drive home this point.

A  British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology (BJCP) article, published way back in August 1998 would vindicate this point. This study revealed the following on clinical trial data:

“Substantial evidence of selective reporting was detected, since trials with positive outcome resulted more often in submission of final report to regulatory authorities than those with inconclusive or negative outcomes.”

Another study published on September 10, 2014 in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) states as follows:

“Thirty-five percent of published reanalysis led to changes in the findings that implied conclusions different from those of the original article about the types and number of patients who should be treated.”

That said, I shall now focus on a very recent controversy in this area, related to a blockbuster drug that has now gone off-patent.

A contemporary example:

Statin class of drugs, especially, Atorvastatin is one of many such examples.

Pfizer launched Atorvastatin with the brand name Lipitor in early 1997. At that time, it was the fifth in the statin class of drugs for the treatment of hyperlipidemia.

It was launched on the back of a 1996 clinical study that concluded, Lipitor reduces bad cholesterol significantly more than the other statins, from the very onset of treatment to as long as the treatment continues. After that it’s a history in the pharma industry, Pfizer marketing turned it into the best-selling drug ever, in the history of pharmaceuticals, so far.

Over 14.5 years, Lipitor reportedly made over US$ 125 billion in sales, and provided up to a quarter of Pfizer Inc.’s annual revenue for years.

Product claim – then:

Claiming that in ‘one year alone, statins reduced numerous cases of cardiovascular-related complications and saved thousands of lives’, a Pfizer Paper on “The Value of Statin”, reiterated the drug’s role both in the treatment and prevention of Coronary Artery Diseases (CAD). I am quoting below from this paper to cite just one example each – treatment and prevention:

  • In a study of patients with Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) statin therapy reduced the relative risk of mortality by 50 percent in those > 80-years-old, 44 percent in those 65- to 79-years-old, and 30% in those < 65 years old, compared to CAD patients in the same age group not taking statin therapy (Ref. Chloe, Allen A., et al. ‘Statin Therapy Is Associated With Reduced Mortality Across All Age Groups of Individuals With Significant Coronary Disease, Including Very Elderly Patients’. JACC. 40: 10; 1777-1785)
  • An analysis of 18 trials, including 56,934 patients, primarily without CVD, demonstrated statins conferred a relative risk reduction (RRR) in all-cause mortality by 14 percent and stroke by 22 percent (Ref. Statins for the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease. Cochrane Database System Review. 2013 Jan 31; 1:CD004816).

Research findings for the same drug – now:

Among several other publications on statins, a July 26, 2015 article, published in the ‘World Journal of Cardiology’ concludes as follows:

“History has proven otherwise, and the global prevalence of Coronary Heart Disease (CHD), despite worldwide statin usage and cholesterol lowering campaigns, has reached pandemic proportions. Coronary heart disease is an extremely complex malady and the expectation that it could be prevented or eliminated by simply reducing cholesterol appears unfounded. After twenty years we should concede the anomalies of the cholesterol hypothesis and refocus our efforts on the proven benefits of a healthy lifestyle incorporating a Mediterranean diet to prevent CHD.”

To give one more example, let me quote from a contemporary study, published on June 12, 2016 in the ‘BMJ Open’, which also comes to a similar conclusion, as follows:

“High LDL-C (Low-Density Lipoproteins – Cholesterol) is inversely associated with mortality in most people over 60 years. This finding is inconsistent with the cholesterol hypothesis (i.e., that cholesterol, particularly LDL-C, is inherently atherogenic). Since elderly people with high LDL-C live as long or longer than those with low LDL-C, our analysis provides reason to question the validity of the cholesterol hypothesis. Moreover, our study provides the rationale for a re-evaluation of guidelines recommending pharmacological reduction of LDL-C in the elderly as a component of cardiovascular disease prevention strategies.”

Examples of other drugs:

Lipitor should not stand out as a solitary example, in this field. To establish this point, let me now put forth, just as illustrations, a few more examples of similar bias on positive results in clinical trial publications, besides many others.

An October 4, 2016 article titled, “Big Pharma’s Role in Clinical Trials”, published in the ‘Drug Watch’, quotes several other companies sailing in the same boat, as follows:

  • The Cochrane Collaboration, a nonprofit organization based in London that reviews health care information, concluded that unlike its promotional claims, Roche’s Tamiflu only shortened symptoms of influenza by one day, and it did not prevent hospitalizations or complications from influenza.
  • AstraZeneca reportedly paid US$ 647 million in lawsuit settlements for failing to inform the public of Seroquel’s side effects.
  • Takeda Pharmaceuticals reportedly settled lawsuits claiming the company’s anti-diabetic drug Actos caused bladder cancer, for US$ 2.37 billion.
  • In July 2012, GlaxoSmithKline reportedly pleaded guilty and agreed to pay US$ 3 billion to settle charges brought by the U.S. Department of Justice for failing to report clinical data on its anti-diabetic drug Avandia.
  • Johnson & Johnson was reportedly accused of hiding some dangerous side effects like, diabetes, substantial weight gain, stroke and gynecomastia – or breast development in boys for its product Risperdal – used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder in adults and adolescents and autism spectrum disorders in children and adolescents.  The company reportedly settled claims in Kentucky, Texas and Montana for a total of more than US$ 340 million and settled multiple cases in Pennsylvania for undisclosed amounts.
  • As reported by ‘Financial Times’ on February 03, 2015, Novartis was accused of manipulating trial data in favor of its anti-hypertensive drug – Diovan, and concealing side-effects associated with its Tasigna – for leukemia treatment. As a result, the company reportedly faced a temporary suspension of its business in Japan, as punishment for alleged manipulation of clinical trial data.

Possible reasons:

The above ‘Drug Watch’ article attributed several reasons to positive data bias in publications, as follows:

  • Researchers publish positive findings more often than negative findings as a result of human bias. Scholars want their work to contribute to medical advancement and not deter it.
  • Researchers do not want to put their time and energy into writing studies about negative results.
  • Journals seek positive results, and publish them more quickly to increase publicity.
  • Trial sponsors want to publish positive results to increase profit.

The article emphasized,Big Pharma funds 60 percent of all clinical trials, and takes advantage of its power to persuade researchers and influence institutions.  The result is an under-informed, and misinformed medical community giving advice to patients with false or incomplete data. The byproducts of industry cover-ups are scores of deaths and millions of dollars in industry profits.”

Indian scenario:

India is also not immune from such alleged wrongdoings. Indian clinical trial organizations have also been accused of trial related scams, and that too on a mega scale, reaching beyond the shores of the country. I am quoting below two such recent examples:

  • In August 2015, the European Union reportedly banned the marketing of around 700 generic medicines for alleged manipulation of clinical trials conducted by the domestic research company GVK Biosciences. This was reported as the largest EU-wide suspension of sales and distribution of generic drugs ordered by the European Commission that was applicable to all its 28 member nations.
  • In July 2016, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) reportedly recommended suspending the sale of dozens of generic medicines over concerns about “flawed” studies that were conducted by the Semler Research Center, located in Bengaluru. Many of these drugs are sold by Novartis and Teva Pharmaceuticals.
  • In September-October 2015, US-FDA also found “significant instances of misconduct and violations of federal regulations by the same research center, which includes substitution and manipulation of study subject samples.”
  • This year, the World Health Organization (WHO) also had issued a notice to Semler for the same reasons. After, examining the company’s computer servers, early and late last year, WHO reportedly found a spreadsheet file containing detailed instructions for manipulating drug samples that were used in clinical trials for its clients. 

It is even more unfortunate that such malpractices are continuing, even after the Supreme Court of India’s widely reported observation in early 2013 that ‘Uncontrolled clinical trials are causing havoc to human life.’ The apex court of the country made this remark in response to a petition filed by the human rights group Swasthya Adhikar Manch (SAM).  

The upshot:

Recent scrutiny of all original clinical trial findings of many new drugs by the independent experts, including statins, even if taken just as raising controversies, the question would still remain, why did such controversies not surface much earlier, or during the product patent life? No company would possibly be willing to unveil the fact behind this raging debate.

The good news is, pharma companies operating in Europe and the United States have decided to share trial data with qualified researchers, effective 2014, presumably in response to mounting pressure from clinical trial transparency campaigners, for quite some time.

The European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) have jointly released a set of principles detailing plans to allow greater access to information from clinical trials. However, it fell short of public availability of all clinical trial data. Let’s wait, watch and hope that this seemingly good intent would be translated into reality by all their member companies.

Some pharma companies and their trade associations continue to raise issues of the various legalities against related to public disclosures of all trial data. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that in April 2014, a legislation was approved in Europe by the European Parliament to increase transparency in clinical trials by making the trial results publicly available. EMA was commissioned by the European Parliament to create a database where all interested parties could view comprehensive data from clinical trials. The transparency rules for the European Clinical Trial Regulation entered into force on January 1, 2015 and apply to clinical trial reports contained in all marketing authorization applications submitted on or after this date. On March 3, 2016, EMA announced the detailed guidance on the requirements for pharmaceutical companies to comply with the agency’s policy on publication of clinical trials data for all medicines. Chapter Three of this publication gives guidance to companies on how to anonymize clinical reports for the purpose of publication.

The EMA initiative of transparency of clinical trial data  aims at ensuring that drug companies are aware of what is expected of them, and that they are ready for the publication of these critical data.

Besides Europe, in the United States too, though there is a clear mandate of the federal government that all clinical trial results related to serious or life-threatening diseases require to be published and uploaded on ClinicalTrials.gov – the database of the Government covering all clinical trials in America. However, this government mandate also seems to be hardly followed, both in its letter and spirit, according to reports. Similar scenario, reportedly, still prevails in most other developed countries, as well. India does not seem to be any different in this matter, either.

Intriguingly, the whole issue continues to remain polemical, with more number of initial clinical trial conclusions reportedly turning out to be not as transparent as these ought to be, carrying a significant bias towards positive treatment outcomes.

As a result, prevailing reticence around unveiling all clinical trials, including those of blockbuster drugs, is eventually pushing many patients to the brink of much avoidable and unforeseen serious health risk.

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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