Transparency in Drug Trial Data: Thwarted by Lobbyists or Embroiled in Controversy?

Based on a leaked letter from overseas pharma industry bodies, a leading international daily in late July 2013 reported:

“Big pharma mobilizing patients in battle over drugs trials data.”

Some experts consider it as a poignant, if not a bizarre moment in the history of drugs development, keeping patients’ interest in mind. However, the concerned trade bodies could well term it as a business savvy strategy to maintain sanctity of ‘Data Exclusivity’ in real sense.

That said, it is important for the stakeholders to figure out where exactly does this strategy stand between the larger issue of patients’ drug safety and efficacy concerns and the commercial interest of the innovator companies to grow  their business.

Lack of transparency in drug trials data and consequences:

Outside pharmaceutical marketing, some of the biggest scandals in the drug industry have been alleged hiding of data related to negative findings in drug Clinical Trials (CTs) by the innovator companies.

Many stakeholders have already expressed their uneasiness on this wide spread allegation that research based pharmaceutical companies publish just a fraction of their CT data and keep much of the drug safety related information to themselves. Not too distant withdrawals of blockbuster drugs like Vioxx (Merck) and Avandia (GSK) will vindicate this point.

Examples of global withdrawals of drugs, including blockbuster ones, available from various publications, are as follows. 

Brand

Company

Indication

Year of Ban/Withdrawal

Reason

Vioxx

Merck

Anti Inflammatory

2004

Increase cardiovascular risk

Bextra

Pfizer

Anti Inflammatory

2005

Heart attack and stroke

Prexige

Novartis

Anti Inflammatory

2007

Hepatotoxicity

Mylotarg

Wyeth

Acute Myelogenous Leukemia

2010

Increased patient death/No added benefit over conventional cancer therapies

Avandia

GSK

Diabetes

2010

Increased cardiovascular risk

Reductil

Abbott

Exogenous Obesity

2010

Increased cardiovascular risk

Paradex

Eli Lilly

Analgesic, Antitussive and Local Anaesthetic

2010

Fatal overdoses and heart arrhythmias

Xigris

Eli Lilly

Anti-Thrombotic, Anti-Inflammatory, and Profibrinolytic

2011

Questionable efficacy for the treatment of sepsis

A recent example:

A recent report indicates that Japan (Tokyo) based Jikei University School of Medicine plans to withdraw a paper on the hypertension drug Diovan of Novartis from the prestigious British Medical Journal (BMJ) due to “data manipulation,” suggesting the drug could help treating other ailments.

The report also indicates that an investigative panel formed by the university to look into the allegations of ‘rigged data’ for Diovan concluded that the results were cooked.

The decision of the Japanese University to withdraw this paper is expected to hurt the reputation of Novartis Pharma AG and at the same time raise ethical concerns about the company’s behavior concerning its best-selling hypertension drug, the report says.

Drug regulators contemplating remedial measures:

Now being cognizant about this practice, some drug regulators in the developed world have exhibited their keenness to disband such practices. These ‘gatekeepers’ of drug efficacy and safety are now contemplating to get the entire published CT data reanalyzed by the independent experts to have a tight leash on selective claims by the concerned pharma companies.

A review reportedly estimates that only half of all CTs were published in full and that positive results are twice as likely to be published than negative ones.

Recently the European Medicines Agency (EMA) has published a draft report for public consideration on greater openness of CT data. As stated above, this proposal allows independent experts to conduct a detail analysis on the safety and effectiveness of new drugs.

Mobilizing patients to thwart transparency?

Interestingly, as stated in the beginning, it has recently been reported that to thwart the above move of the drug regulator in favor of patients’ interest:

“The pharmaceutical industry has mobilized an army of patient groups to lobby against plans to force companies to publish secret documents on drugs trials.”

The same report highlights that two large overseas trade associations had worked out a grand strategy, which is initially targeted at Europe. This is for the obvious reason that the EMA wants to publish all of the clinical study reports that drug companies have filed, and where negotiations around the CT directive could force drug companies to publish all CT results in a public database.

Embroiled in controversy:

It has also been reported simultaneously, “Some who oppose full disclosure of data fear that publishing the information could reveal trade secrets, put patient privacy at risk, and be distorted by scientists’ own conflicts of interest.”

Pharmaceutical trade associations in the west strongly argue in favor of the need of innovator companies to keep most of CT data proprietary for competitive reasons. They reiterate that companies would never invest so much of time and money for new drug development, if someone could easily copy the innovative work during the patent life of the product.

However, the report also states, “While many of these concerns are valid, critics say they can be addressed, and that openness is far more important for patients’ drug safety reasons.

Addressing the concerns:

To address the above concerns the EMA has reportedly separated clinical data into three categories:

  • Commercially confidential information.
  • Open-access data that doesn’t contain patients’ personal information.
  • Controlled-access data that will only be granted after the requester has fulfilled a number of requirements, including signing of a data-sharing agreement.

However experts do also reiterate, “Risks regarding data privacy and irresponsible use cannot be totally eliminated, and it will be a challenge to accommodate diverse expectations across the scientific and medical community. However, the opportunity to benefit the health of individuals and the public must outweigh these concerns.”

Some laudable responses:

Amidst mega attempts to thwart the move of EMA towards CT data transparency surreptitiously, there are some refreshingly good examples in this area, quite rare though, as follows:

  • As revealed by media, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has recently announced that it would share detailed data from all global clinical trials conducted since 2007, which was later extended to all products since 2000. This means sharing more than 1,000 CTs involving more than 90 drugs. More recently, to further increase transparency in how it reports drug-study results, GSK reportedly has decided to disclose more individual patient data from its CTs. GSK has also announced that qualified researchers can request access to findings on individual patients whose identities are concealed and confidentiality protected.The company would double the number of studies to 400 available by end 2013 to researchers seeking data of approved medicines and of therapies that have been terminated from development.
  • Recently Canada reportedly announced the launch of Canadian Government’s new public database of Health Canada-authorized drug CTs. It is believed that providing access to a central database of clinical trials is an initial step that will help fill an existing information gap as the government works to further increase transparency around CTs.
  • The well-known British Medical Journal (BMJ) in one of its editorials has already announced, “BMJ will require authors to commit to supplying anonymised patient level data on reasonable request from 2013.”

All these are indeed laudable initiatives in terms of ensuring long term drug safety and efficacy for the patients.

Conclusion:

It is quite refreshing to note that a new paradigm is emerging in the arena of CT data transparency, for long-term health interest of patients, despite strong resistance from powerful pharmaceutical trade bodies, as reported in the international media. This paradigm shift is apparently being spearheaded by Europe and Canada among the countries, the global pharma major GSK and the medical Journal BMJ.

A doubt still keeps lingering on whether or not independent expert panels will indeed be given access to relevant CT data for meaningful impartial reviews of new drugs, as the issue, in all probability, would increasingly be made to get embroiled in further controversy.

Moreover, if the innovator companies’ often repeated public stand – “patients’ interest for drug efficacy and safety is supreme” is taken in its face value, the veiled attempt of thwarting transparency of CT Data, with an utterly bizarre strategy, by the lobbyists of the same ‘patient caring’ constituent, can indeed be construed as a poignant moment, now frozen in time, in the history of drug development for mankind.

Be that as it may, to resolve this problem meaningfully and decisively, I reckon, a middle path needs to be carefully charted out between reported thwarting moves by pharma lobbyists and the embroiled controversy on the burning issue.

Thus, the final critical point to ponder:

Would the commerce-driven and cost-intensive pharma innovation also not be in jeopardy, affecting patients’ interest too, if the genuine concerns of the innovator companies over ‘CT Data Protection’ are totally wished away? 

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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