Why Adjust the Dosage on a Useless Drug?

Merrill Goozner is among our nation’s best health policy reporters. His concern about this FDA decision is one that makes a great deal of sense.

Professors Lisa Schwartz and Steven Woloshin of the Center for Medicine and the Media at The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice are raising alarms about a recent Food and Drug Administration decision to approve a new dosage for the  best-selling Alzheimer’s drug Aricept (donepezil). The decision “breached the FDA’s own regulatory standard” and has led to “incomplete and distorted messages” about the drug, they warned in the latest British Medical Journal.

Aricept has become a $2 billion-a-year blockbuster in large part because people caring for elderly patients with dementia are desperate for something, anything to slow their loved ones’ inexorable decline. The original dose for the drug, which was approved in 1996, provided a short-term improvement in memory that faded to insignificance within six months. With its patent due to expire, the companies behind the drug — Eisai and Pfizer — went to the FDA with a clinical trial in 1,400 patients claiming a higher dosage showed better results. The FDA agreed, which gave the companies another three years of marketing exclusivity based on a use patent for that new, higher dose.

Here’s the medical problem with that higher dosage, according to Schwartz and Woloshin. While the clinical trial showed that patients did slightly better in cognition (like recognizing numbers), the drug had no impact whatsoever on their actual functioning in day-to-day life, at least none that their caregivers could notice. Yet the major side effects of the drug — nausea and vomiting — increased significantly. The article claimed that the FDA had said specifically to the trial sponsors that the higher dose had to have an impact that caregivers could notice to win approval. Schwartz and Woloshin charged the FDA with violating its own standards.