By HEATHER A. DAVIS
In late September, when the arthritis drug Vioxx was pulled from the
shelves by Merck & Co., Garret FitzGerald, chairman of the Department
of Pharmacology in the School of Medicine, thought it a wise move.
And it hardly surprised him.
As the researcher who led Merck and other drug company-funded studies
of both Vioxx and a similar drug, Celebrex, in 1999 and 2001, FitzGerald
had discovered that a substance in the drugs that alleviates gastrointestinal
distress also blocks a mechanism that prevents cardiovascular problems.
At the time, he warned that Vioxxa painkiller for people suffering
from arthritiscould elevate a patients risk of heart attack
With Vioxx now gone from the market, FitzGerald still wonders if people
who were at a high risk for heart disease should have been warned before
taking the druga drug that, FitzGerald says, can be very beneficial
to those not in the risk group. This is a very useful class of
drugs. They work, he says. Should there be some sort of warning
for people at a high cardiovascular risk? How do we define the parameters
at which people can use?
In the recent Merck-funded study that led directly to this falls
medical surprise, Vioxx was tested in people with a low risk of heart
attack and stroke against a placebo. While the results showed an increase
in the risk of a heart attack and strokesomething that FitzGerald
takes seriouslyhe adds that it affected only a small number of people
in the study.
FitzGeralds studies have suggested these problems may extend to
drugs similar to Vioxx, even though, he says, the Food and Drug Administration
claims to have found insufficient evidence of that. What Ive
been rather stunned by is the silence of the FDA, he says. The
FDA obviously has to be our guarantor of cautious behavior. In late
October, the European Medicines Agency, a pharmaceutical safety organization
based in London, decided to examine similar class drugs on the market
or in development as a precautionary measure.
FitzGerald praises Mercks decision to pull Vioxx from the market, but blasts Pfizer for sitting on one of its own studies that suggests that Celebrex has side effects similar to Vioxx. Its important to recognize that all of us have legitimate interests that we have to serve, he says. Hopefully in the academic sector, the only interest that were paid to serve is to tell the truth as we see it.
Originally published on November 4, 2004