The Senate report that leaked on Avandia (rosiglitazone) over the weekend has made plenty of headlines. It quotes an internal FDA report that recommends flatly that the drug be removed from the market, since its beneficial effects can be achieved by use of the competing PPAR drug Actos (pioglitazone), which doesn't seem to have the same cardiovascular risks. The two drugs have been compared (retrospectively) head to head, and Avandia definitely seems to have come out as inferior due to safety concerns.
There had been worries for several years about side effects, but the red flag went up for good in 2007, and the arguing has not ceased since then. According to another FDA document in the Senate report, there are "multiple conflicting opinions" inside the agency about what to do. The agency ordered GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK) to set up a prospective head-to-head trial of Avandia and Actos, but other staffers insist that the whole idea is unethical. If the cardiovascular risks are real, they argue, then you can't expose people to Avandia just to find out how much worse it is. The trial is enrolling patients, but will take years to generate data, and Avandia will be generic by the time it reports, anyway. (Presumably, the only reason GSK is running it is because the drug would be taken off the market for sure if they didn't.)
The FDA's internal debate is one issue here (as is the follow-up question about whether the agency should be restructured to handle these questions differently). But another one is GlaxoSmithKline's response to all the safety problems. Says that New York Times article:
In 1999, for instance, Dr. John Buse, a professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina, gave presentations at scientific meetings suggesting that Avandia had heart risks. GlaxoSmithKline executives complained to his supervisor and hinted of legal action against him, according to the Senate inquiry. Dr. Buse eventually signed a document provided by GlaxoSmithKline agreeing not to discuss his worries about Avandia publicly. The report cites a separate episode of intimidation of investigators at the University of Pennsylvania.
GlaxoSmithKline said that it “does not condone any effort to silence” scientific debate, and that it disagrees with allegations that it tried to silence Dr. Buse. Still, it said the situation “could have been handled differently.”
Well, yeah, I should think so. I don't know what the state of the evidence was as early as 1999, but subsequent events appear to have vindicated Buse and his concerns. And while you can't just sit back and let everyone take shots at your new drug, you also have to be alert to the possibility that some of the naysayers might be right. We honestly don't know enough about human toxicology to predict what's going to happen in a large patient population very well, and companies need to be honest with the public (and themselves) about that.