I suspect that many of you (after reading the title of this post) might be expecting another rant about the need for new antibiotics to treat infections caused by multiple drug resistant strains of bacteria. Sorry to disappoint you because that isn’t what this post is about. After reading and listening to several seemingly disparate radio and newspaper stories this morning, I decided to combine three different stories into a single post that touches on several common themes.
First, I heard a story on NPR this morning (while driving my daughter to middle school) about FDA’s initiative to require that oysters harvested from the Gulf of Mexico be pretreated before they can be served in restaurants and eaten raw. The reason for this initiative is that a majority of live oysters harvested from the Gulf of Mexico are usually contaminated with the opportunistic bacterial pathogen Vibrio vulnificus and other Vibrio species. Approximately, 15 or more immunocompromised patents die each year and many more get ill after ingesting raw Louisiana oysters infected with V. vulnificus. FDA, (which for those of you who don’t know also regulates the food and cosmetic industries in addition to the drug and devices industries), spent the past few years crafting regulatory guidelines that called for mandatory treatment (irradiation or pasteurization) of oysters from the Gulf of Mexico before they are served “raw” at restaurants and other commercial food operations. The regulations were to be implemented sometime in 2011. While many of the larger commercial Louisiana-based raw oyster producers already pre-treat their oysters before they are sold to restaurants, the pretreatment requirement would be economically onerous and challenging to “mom and pop” oyster business throughout Louisiana. Not surprisingly, given the economic devastation caused by hurricane Katrina several years ago, FDA was assaulted by oyster manufacturing trade groups and Louisiana politicians and lobbyists asking the agency to delay implementation of the new rules. Unfortunately, FDA officials caved and yielded to the onslaught and agreed to conduct a pilot study designed to assess the effectiveness of the program before forcing the new rules on the Gulf Coast oyster industry. For the record, I love eating raw oysters and the thought of eating a so-called “raw oysters” that have previously been pasteurized or irradiated seems unseemly and unappealing to me. However, FDA’s mission is to provide Americans with a safe food supply and to minimize the incidence of any public health risks associated with or caused by it. The fact that FDA was cajoled and yielded to calls that that the agency placed economic concerns ahead of known public health risks is lamentable and truly regrettable. Rather than spending excessive amounts of money on lobbying efforts to delay appropriate public health initiatives, the Gulf Coast oyster industry and its trade groups and lobbyist ought to consider investing in efforts to combat global warming and Gulf of Mexico water pollution, which in turn, would reduce the bacterial load of live oysters harvested from the Gulf of Mexico and serve to raw oyster enthusiasts.
On a more upbeat note about infectious diseases (sort of), there was an article in today’s Science Times which reported the results of a study that linked exposure to five so-called common pathogens, Chalmydia pneumoniae, Helicobacter pylori, cytomegalovirus and Herpes simplex types 1 and 2 to increased risk of stroke. According to the article, each of these pathogens may persist after acute infections and contribute to an ongoing chronic low level infection. These low level infections coupled with chronic inflammation of blood vessels induced by the infections may contribute to the increased likelihood of stroke. While intriguing, authors of the study warn that their results don’t establish a cause-and-effect relationship between these infections and stroke. More research will be required to determine whether or not there is a definitive link between these infections and the incidence of stroke..
Speaking of stroke and heart attacks, I want to turn my attention to the clinical trial results reported yesterday by Merck & Co about its cholesterol-lowering drugs Zetia and Vytorin. As you may recall, a brouhaha erupted about a year ago about whether or not the cholesterol-lowering effects of Merck’s blockbuster drugs Zetia and Vytorin (which is a combination of Zetia and the statin Zocor) actually protected patients from increased risk of heart attack and stroke. The results of the long awaited study which were presented at an American Heart Association meeting on Monday support previous findings of two earlier clinical studies which showed that despite lowering LDL cholesterol levels, Zetia and Vytorin don’t reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke in at-risk patients.
In the study patients who were at risk for cardiovascular disease were treated with statins in combination with either Zetia or Niaspan (a prescription, controlled-release formulation of over-the-counter niacin supplements that exhibits cholesterol-lowering properties). Patients who received statins plus Niaspan had decreased thickening of the walls (caused by atherosclerosis) of the carotid artery whereas those treated with Zetia failed to inhibit arterial plaque buildup. In other words, Zetia (and Vytorin) which are expensive prescription drugs don’t provide any health benefits beyond those offered by statins, many of which (including Merck’s Zocor) are available as low-cost generics.
Despite the lack of any clear medical or health benefits, sales of Zetia and Vytorin generated about $4.8 billion in sales last year. You would think that Merck and its stakeholders would be devastated by the results of the new study. However, they were actually happy about the news—they were fearful (based on data from the earlier studies) that Zetia may actually increase the risk of heart attack and stroke! What is particularly revealing (and disturbing) about the whole Zetia/Vytorin story is that Merck is relieved that an expensive drug that it heavily promoted as being beneficial and safe is in reality not beneficial. When did it become acceptable that the only requirement for FDA approval of prescription drugs is safety? Doesn’t a drug have to also show a positive therapeutic and clinical effect (over previously approved drugs for the same indication) before it wins regulatory approval? The fact that physicians continue to prescribe ineffective, multi-billion dollar drugs like Zetia instead of cheaper and effective generic versions of cholesterol-lowering drugs another troubling sign of our current economic situation and the need for healthcare reform in the US.
Finally, for you patent aficionados, there was an illuminating and incisive op-ed piece in today’s NY Times that shed light on the problems with the current US patent approval process. While I have substantial experience in this area, I learned more from reading this article than I did from the many years that I worked closely with patent and intellectual property attorneys. This article is a must read for those persons considering careers in intellectual property and patent law and entrepreneurial individuals who are interested in starting up life sciences companies.
Until next time…
Good Luck and Live and Learn!!!!