Bad Medicine (Pt3)

What does (S)-3-(aminomethyl)-5-methylhexanoic acid do for you? That depends on whether you’re a doctor prescribing Lyrica, a pharmaceutical company making pregabalin, or a patient:

Stop the drug, swelling goes.  © Canadian Medical Ass’n


It’s four years since my last incredulous post on the alliance between researchers and Pfizer, a collusion formalized in business collaboration at Monash University in Jun ’17. This revisit begins with the TGA (equiv to US FDA) Product Info for health professionals on Lyrica/pregabalin as of Sept ’16. The first condition of painful Diabetic Neuropathy (PDN) lists 5 completed studies in Table 1, showing pain was halved for ~26% of those administered 150mg, and ~45% if on 600mg. This would encourage doctors to increase dosage up to the maximal 600mg daily (double that allowed in the US). The most frequently reported side-effects are weight gain, dizziness and sleepiness. The manufacturer has checked on driver safety, but research simply doesn’t encompass a thought that harms should be measured systematically: Prof Nadine Attal replied to my concern with “I agree… because the methods used to assess side effects are seldom standardized, particularly as regards cognitive effects of drugs“. This is an obvious pharmacovigilance problem, but another risk lurks. Pg13 of the TGA brochure informs doctors that less than 4% of trial participants suffered peripheral oedema (pictured). None of their advice is referenced, so let’s fact-check.

Peripheral Oedema/swelling

Pfizer reported in ‘A Comprehensive Drug Safety Evaluation of Pregabalin in Peripheral Neuropathic Pain’ that they’d run 13 Randomised Controlled Trials of Lyrica for PDN up to May ’12. Somewhat surprising that the TGA only found 6, which also included independent investigations. Oedema was reported in 9% of neuropathy patients. The manufacturer paints a harms picture that’s doubly worse  than the govt regulator does! One Pfizer trial continued for another year with volunteers, of whom 16% reported oedema (10% resolved inside 2 months). Oedema is associated with congestive heart failure, so it matters. And the worsened circulation is associated with non-healing ulcers in diabetics, and that can lead to amputation. Wondering what have you got to lose by starting with this drug – a foot, perhaps? Regardless of adverse events/side-effects, stopping the drug resolves that issue – but at the end of any study there’s limited data captured on withdrawal effects.


Enriched Enrollment Randomised Withdrawal is a legitimate study design, whereby everyone is dosed and only responders continue into the trial. If it didn’t work for you, goodbye. This means that the group randomized to placebo go through withdrawals, and Pfizer ran this protocol thrice (twice including DPN). After an avg of 400mg daily for a month, then 150mg for one week tapering, pain was marginally worse in the placebo group after a month. 2.5% of the Lyrica group withdrew due to adverse events compared with 6.5% of the placebo arm, hinting at withdrawals suffering. The same protocol with backpain participants finished with both groups reporting the same level of pain, although the withdrawal arm experienced worsening sooner. The endpoint is in accord with the PRECISE study’s finding that Lyrica doesn’t work for backpain.

A lengthier and larger study was run, but this time concomitant meds other than paracetamol were disallowed. Previously patients had continued their own opioids or gabapentin (a Lyrica predecessor), but now the effect of withdrawal was pronounced – some 2 months of worsened pain. Interestingly this study team included Dr Cory Toth *, who’s had 9 papers retracted due to fabricated results. The team then ran a study without Toth, which showed no benefit whatsoever for Lyrica in PDN.


Placebo group suffering withdrawals from run-in period

Another protocol requiring drug withdrawal is the crossover design. This study on pre-diabetic neuropathy , again funded by Pfizer, shows a pain spike lasting just 1 week upon switching from drug to placebo.

© 2016 Wolters Kluwer

Another PDN crossover study is intriguing – worse withdrawals were suffered going from placebo onto pregabalin in the first week, altho’ actual withdrawals from the drug lasted 3 weeks. Again, the outcome was of a nearly worthless drug, but it’d seem that the fear of losing relief from pain (even if just an imaginary benefit) caused hurtful anguish.

© 2015 Wolters Kluwer

An independent review aggregated 15 trials up until Mar ’16 and concluded …”an overall small effect size with significant heterogeneity in the findings. Reporting bias was a particular concern, due to the high number of unpublished studies.” The 5 TGA examples chosen were an obvious cherrypick of the best results from the picture, being Refs: 17, 18, 19, 21, and 22. It seems that the benefit is arguably small, and data on withdrawals is limited. A recent review on Lyrica’s abuse potential coincides with transfer to Class C schedule in the UK underway, informed by little more than frequent discovery in prisons. Public forums are informative: this group, including recreational users, has a couple of hundred user comments… ** Surprisingly, a ‘comprehensive’ report in Oct ’17 came up with only 4 reported cases of withdrawal symptoms ever, where usage had been within therapeutic guidelines. The gulf of understanding between medicine and its recipients widens.

Although not the decision makers, patients were treated to $USD344m of Lyrica TV advertising in 2016 (per Nielsen). Half of which was promoting use in diabetic pain. Small comfort can be found in Pfizer’s report that glycaemic control is only fractionally worsened. I do not feel the need to examine every condition for which Lyrica is approved – one instance of systemic failure suffices. For more on the politics of pain, read on…. Geoff Kirwood GDip Clin Research

* Cory apologized, but whether he was ‘sincerely’ sorry is questionable (Confidence Interval bounds not given): “I am significantly apologetic”. His resignation isn’t mentioned on the faculty page, and vice-dean MacQueen accepted his declared failure to oversee his 9 instances of data manipulation. She consults to Pfizer. Scott Reuben went to jail for fraud in 21 papers, which must exceed the threshold of acceptable levels of mistakes. Colleagues Buvanendran and Kroin on Reuben’s retracted pregabalin study went on to publish a favourable study on pregabalin. Paid for by Pfizer.  However it doesn’t taint the evidence base, oh no, no, no.

** Bluelight  is dedicated to drug harm reduction, and is named after the flame of crystal meth.



The influx of Chinese to the Californian goldfields brought with them homegrown remedies for the pain and inflammation of their labour. So impressive was the effectiveness of their snake-oil, that an entrepreneur also made extracts from the local rattlesnakes. It was ineffectual, and sales events were followed by the salesman’s hasty exit. But Chinese water-snake’s oil is 20% EPA – more than that from our preferred source of omega-3, salmon. It’s vital for the species in the cold conditions, whereas the rattlesnake’s blood has no issue with glugging up in the desert.

Why the history lesson?

It’s because Harvard Med School has just blogged that fish-oil supplements are worthless as preventatives. This surprised me, since my BP reduces markedly on the minimal dosage of 2000mg fish oil, twice that obtained from an ACE inhibitor. Sure, that’s just a surrogate outcome and not reflective of survival into senility. So is the research from American Heart Association to be trusted? Our Heart Foundation’s never untangled themselves from industry ties, so….

The detailed article needs to be read from bottom to top, starting with declarations of conflicted-interest. Dariush Mozaffarian has received no grants or support from industry? That’s not what Mozza’s CV says on pg8&10: $83k from Pfizer to trial Lipitor in ’02, and $5.1m from GSK & SigmaTau pharmaceutical companies to trial fish oil on cardiac patients. His collaborator on that one, Jason Wu also forgot to disclose same in the article. He’s done a lot of work with the George Institute, a partner in the Australian public’s generously sponsoring of a $5m NHMRC trial of Lipitor. Pfizer and SigmaTau also ran a 5 year trial of omega-3 supplements on twelve and a half thousand elderly patients having cardiovascular risk factors, finding no advantage conferred to survival rates. That’s a big study, and pretty generous of Pfarma.

You have to wonder: why do we pay to study Pfarma’s meds, and they pay to study the competition?

The Harvard expert Eric Rimm’s quoted in their blog: “Taking fish oil… may not only have no benefit, it may even have some risks that we don’t realize because we haven’t studied them.” And they’re the ones dismissing complementary medicine for its supposed lack of evidence base to claimed benefits! Dr Rimm’s Pfizer-sponsored study on erectile dysfunction is a rerun of the  Heart Foundation’s apologists Grenfell and Banks advisories to take Pfizer’s infamous blue pills OR DIE. Despite this geek’s degree being Computer Sc, he’s pulled $400k to study floppys, and is now a Professor of Medicine.

In the movie ‘Dope’, drug-hustling Malcolm is fixated on Harvard. For the easy money?

It’s ironic to think that better treatments were available in the Wild West, and those cowboys had no problems with shooting their gun.

‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ was an 1886 novel written to contrast public and private lives of a reputable gentleman. Duplicity is a constant failing, but often what’s revealed is just an iceberg’s tip above massive issues. Thanks to the only mandatory Pfarma reporting in Oz, Medicine Australia’s Education Events, we know that Pfizer spent an average of $12k on each of the 23 rheumatologists they recently sent to European and American conferences EULAR and ACR. The full reports give an insight into specialist’s lives outside the surgery, as $43.3m was spent on them in the 6 months to Sept 2015. Worse still in 2010 pharmaceutical companies reported $637m expenditure on research, but nobody knows who received the money *. There is monumental potential for conflict-of-interest as the scope of new-gen bio-agents increases (monoclonal antibody drugs, hereafter referred to as the  _mab drugs).

Tony Abbott recovers after finishing Pfarma-sponsored 'Pollie Pedal' in 2013

Tony Abbott recovers after finishing Pfarma-sponsored ‘Pollie Pedal’ in 2013

Amgen sponsored 799 events in the last 6 months. Focusing in more closely, we really can’t be sure just how safe is their anti-inflammatory _mab for arthritis, Enbrel. Regulatory authority TGA advises physicians under Adverse Effects: “In placebo-controlled trials, no increase in the incidence of serious infections (fatal, life-threatening, or requiring hospitalisation or intravenous antibiotics) was observed“. Uhuhh.

Allegations it caused Eagles frontman Glenn Frey’s death due to pneumonia can’t be verified. In the latest EULAR journal ‘Annals of Rheumatic Diseases’ Winthrop & Smolen et al suggest it’s a good idea to track outcomes of _mabs. ‘Opportunistic infections and biologic therapies in immune-mediated inflammatory diseases’ reveals the shortcoming that “no consistent OI [Opportunistic Infection] definition was identified across [368] studies“. Hence a list of OIs was drawn up, topped by the pathogen responsible for pneumonia. The best evidence for their recommendations was the publicly accessible meta-analysis by Kourbeti, Ziakas, & Mylonakis which put the odds of infections 1.8 times higher for _mab recipients than controls (usually patients on frontline med, methotrexate)  in Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) trials – a small but significant risk. But note that RA doubles that risk over healthy comparators already.

That’s short term though, a trial median of around 6 months for the drug to prove its worth. Aust Rheumatology Association’s Rachelle Buchbinder established the ARAD tracking database a decade ago to determine _mab safety. It’s paid for by Pfizer, BMS and AbbVie. The few reports published in journals thus far inform us of customer satisfaction such as subjective Quality of Life surveys, and that no increased risk of cancer occurs, and that herpes/shingles virus infection rates are 1.7 times higher. Specifically for Enbrel, this result came after a median of 3 years followup. So the longterm prognosis is much like the brief studies would indicate. A worsening, but hardly deadly. Glenn’s manager wisely declares he has taken legal advice to limit his accusation.

This drug inhibits TNF, a cytokine messenger that augments our innate immunity system. As understanding of the molecular basis of many diseases improves, an inflammatory aspect is a recurring theme. The prospects for treatment with anti-TNF therapy look promising, but for the fact that the body needs to be regulated by internal controls. And not shareholders, salesfolk, or Jekyll. Interestingly, a trial for Enbrel in Alzheimers found that TNF levels rose. Feedback systems are adaptive.

Future studies could well heed the EULAR belief that their “… list of infections should be considered potential indicators of alterations in host immunity, and that this list and the associated case definitions should be used to standardise reporting of OIs in future biologic and other disease modifying antirheumatic drug clinical trials“. It’d also be helpful if an outcome tracking registry reported on all OIs, instead of the trickle of data from ARAD. But unease over industry manipulation of research is fuelled by the doctors themselves. When a weakened version of the US Sunshine Act for disclosing contents of the unmarked envelope was being considered by the Aust Competition and Consumer Commission, the AMA submission sought a deferral: “A twelve month delay in implementing the ACCC’s condition would allow health practitioners to think about and plan for their ongoing relationships with pharmaceutical companies.”

Gap payments cover the weekender, the kid's schooling ....

Gap payments

EULAR 2016 is in London. The UK has an Office of Research Integrity, let’s hope some fresher ideas than creative accounting are brought home.

* Source: College of Psychiatry submission to the ACCC. They’re concerned: “Clinical research should be included in the transparency model. All payments above the threshold that are made to individual researchers, or research institutions, including hospitals, should be publicly reported. This would better enable doctors and other health professionals to interpret the research outcomes while taking into account their funding sources.”