Evelyn Pringle March 12, 2006
Some of the top-selling drugs of all time are those prescribed to treat attention deficit disorders. Drug companies have physicians in every field of medicine pushing these medications and dole out millions of dollars worth of free samples each year to make sure they are passed out like candy.
A new ADHD drug is set to come on the market that supposedly can keep people awake for days at a time with no problems. Just what we needed, especially for hyper little kids.
I wonder if this means they will remain calm as they sit wide-awake watching TV and playing video games for days while the rest of the family sleeps.
The drug Sparlon is manufactured by Cephalon and is a clone of Provigil, another drug already on the market. Sparlon contains modafinil, the same exact active ingredient contained in Provigil which is approved for the treatment of patients with narcolepsy, sleep apnea and shift work sleep disorder, according to the FDA.
The drug’s approval will be considered by the FDA’s Psychopharmacologic Drugs Advisory Committee at a public hearing scheduled for March 23, 2006.
The day before the Sparlon hearing, the FDA’s Pediatric Advisory Committee is scheduled to meet to discuss neuropsychiatric adverse events and cardiovascular adverse events reported on patients who were treated with ADHD stimulant drugs already on the market.
The drugs under review include Ritalin from Novartis, Adderall and Adderall XR from Shire Pharmaceuticals, Concerta from Johnson & Johnson, and generic versions of Ritalin.
On February 9 and 10, 2006, the FDA’s Drug Safety & Risk Management Advisory Committee held hearings on the same topic, and after reviewing the information provided at the hearing, the panel recommended that black box labels be added to the labels of all stimulants.
However, the FDA is not bound by the recommendations of its advisory panels, and critics of the drugs say the close 8-7 vote by the panel, means there will be spirited debate within the agency over whether black box labels will be added.
Several members of the panel said they voted for the warning in part, because they were alarmed over the sharp rise in prescriptions written for both children and adults. During the hearing, the committee was informed that between 1999 and 2003, roughly 78 million prescriptions were written for children under the age of 18, and 14 million more were written for adults.
In a stark contrast, only 190 million prescriptions were issued for children and adults during the 12 year period between 1992 and 2004.
According to the FDA numbers on adverse events, between 1999 and 2003, there were 25 deaths reported for persons using ADHD drugs, and 19 were children. The agency also acknowledged that more than 50 cases of cardiovascular-related events were reported in the same time period including stoke, heart attack, hypertension, palpitations and arrhythmia.
Critics say the numbers revealed at the hearings represent a gross understatement because only 1% to 10% of adverse reactions are ever reported to the FDA, and it would therefore be better to add a black box now and remove it later if studies prove there is no link between the stimulants and sudden death and heart disease.
Supporters of the drugs, say the warning is based on inconclusive evidence and would deter physicians from prescribing the medications and scare patients away from taking the drugs.
Because Cephalon claims Sparlon should not be classified as a stimulant, analysts predict the company could get a boost if the FDA agrees and requires the other drugs to carry a black box warning. One of the issues discussed at the March 23, hearing will likely be how to distinguish Sparlon’s labeling from other ADHD drugs.
If approved, Sparlon will be co-marketed under an agreement with Johnson & Johnson, which will focus on the pediatric market through its McNeil Consumer & Specialty Pharmaceuticals unit.
McNeil’s sales team will promote Sparlon to psychiatrists, pediatric neurologists and pediatricians, while Cephalon’s 400-person sales force will focus on non-pediatric specialists and primary care physicians.
When Cephalon requested FDA approval for Sparlon, it submitted the results from three clinical trials on children aged 6 to 17 that the company said indicated better results in children taking Sparlon compared to children who received a placebo. Each trial lasted 9 weeks and the most common side effects noted were loss of appetite, mild insomnia and headaches.
But Cephalon has not been sitting idle while waiting for approval of its Provigil clone. Last year it had to figure out a way to deal with the fact that Provigil’s patent was set to expire in 2006. Through some last minute legal footwork, the company was able to negotiate agreements with 4 generic firms that will allow Cephalon to continue to sell the drug unchallenged until at least 2011
Provigil’s approval for a silly diagnosis like “shift-work sleep disorder” is a good example of disease-mongering, described in the book, “Selling Sickness: How The World’s Biggest Pharmaceutical Companies Are Turning Us All Into Patients,” by Ray Moynihan and Alan Cassels, which explains how drug companies foster the creation of bogus disorders to create markets for their pills, through “medicalization” of normal states of health.
In the same vein, many experts say the sale of ADHD drugs in general is nothing but a racket. Dr Fred Baughman, a board certified child neurologist and Fellow of the American Academy of Neurology, calls ADHD the “greatest health care fraud of modern times.”
Clinical social worker Peter Dwyer, has seven years’ experience working with troubled children, and has served as director of a large therapeutic foster care program. He also attributes the ever-rising sales numbers for ADHD drugs to a grand marketing scheme.
“It is easy to see why stimulants dominate the treatment of ADHD,” he says, “drug companies spend over $20 billion a year on promotion – more than they spend on research.”
“The bottom line,” Mr Dwyer explains, “professionals and the public are bombarded with a stream of “research” and “information” financed and spun by the people who make and sell these drugs.”
“The conflict of interest is palpable,” he adds.
And anyone who believes Provigil is free of the side effects associated with other ADHD medications needs to speak to Susan Florence who experienced a terrifying adverse reaction to the drug.
“I took one pill and I thought I was coming out of my skin,” she recalls, “I felt as if someone had climbed inside me.”
“It was one of the worst experiences of my life,” she says.
Nonetheless, Cephalon has done an excellent job of promoting Provigil. The US Air Force has even adopted the drug as one of its official “go pills” for pilots whose missions stretch out more than 12 hours, according to Business Week on November 1, 2004.
Ever since Provigil hit the market, Cephalon stayed busy figuring out ways to promote its off-label use for a multitude of ailments including ADHD, and with obvious success. SG Cowen & Co analyst, Eric Schmidt, told Business Week he figures more than 50% of Provigil sales are for unapproved uses.
And 50% in off-label sales adds up to enormous profits. In 2004, US doctors wrote 1.9 million prescriptions for Provigil, generating $414 million in sales. In 2005, Cephalon saw Provigil sales reach $512 million, according to Forbes.com on March 13, 2006.
While waiting for Sparlon to be approved, the company has been using every trick in the book to boost sales of Provigil for the treatment of ADHD.
For instance, Dr Fletcher Taylor, from Tacoma, Washington, was paid to meet with small groups of doctors to talk about Provigil.
He conducted a study on the use of Provigil for ADHD, which he claims showed positive results. However, according to Business Week, Dr Taylor says “he does not bring up the use of Provigil for ADHD in his talks, but he answers questions – as he is permitted to do – if one of the doctors in the group brings it up.”
“Usually people do ask,” he told Business Week.
I’m quite sure they do ask, probably much like the people on TV who used to just happen to step out of the audience to be cured by faith-healer 50 years ago.
Cephalon also employs the well-known off-label marking technique of funding continuing medical education seminars (CMEs), under the guise of providing doctors with information related to how certain ailments can be treated by drugs that the company just happens to sell.
For example, Cephalon paid for a CME that focused on the treatment of daytime sleepiness experienced by Parkinson patients and explained how Provigil might be a useful therapy.
The sponsor of the program, a firm called Projects in Knowledge, told Business Week that Cephalon paid for the program but had no input on the material discussed.
And of course I believe that.
Another tried and true method of promoting off-label use involves publishing the results of favorable studies funded by drug companies in medical journals. “Journals have devolved into information laundering operations for the pharmaceutical industry,” according to Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, in March 2004
In a prime example of this practice, the August 4, 2005 New England Journal of Medicine, published a report on a study funded by Cephalon in which the lead author, Dr Charles Czeisler, from Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, had a professorship endowed by $2 million from Cephalon.
In the report, Dr Czeisler claimed night-shift workers remained more alert with Provigil and wrote a glowing summary of the study. “I would characterize [Provigil] as the treatment of choice with patients with shift-work disorder,” he said.
However, Dr Robert Basner, director of Columbia University’s Cardiopulmonary Sleep and Ventilatory Disorders Center, published an editorial on the study in the same issue of the NEJM and said the researchers’ data showed only slight improvements in workers wakefulness and productivity with Provigil, and pointed out that the drug seemed to exacerbate insomnia for some patients.
“That’s not a very robust endorsement of the drug coming from the investigators themselves,” Dr Basner wrote. “This drug is little better than nothing in terms of making them less sleepy during shift work at night,” he added.
Experts pretty much agree that Sparlon will be approved for treating children with ADHD so before too long the “little better than nothing” clone will not doubt be ringing up the cash registers all over the US.