These drugs inhibit the action of a gene called PCSK9 and interfere with the liver's detection and response to LDL levels in the body; see the NYT story here from last week for more details about the drugs. The excited news reports, at least, describe what are truly remarkable reductions in LDL levels without untoward side effects. If these facts stand up to larger or longer term trials and experience, it will be a major pharmaceutical success....in more ways than one.
One immediate issue is the 'usage creep' that almost inevitably seems to follow the appearance of a new drug, and in this case one with fewer side effects and higher efficacy with regard to lowering the most dangerous type of circulating cholesterol (the 'bad', or LDL form). Recommended approval is for use in three groups of patients: those whose high LDL cholesterol can't be lowered sufficiently with statins, those at particularly high risk because of previous heart attack or diabetes and high LDL, and those with high levels of LDL who can't tolerate statins.
But if these agents are as effective as reports suggest, and with less or even no serious side effects, then even if they are initially approved or recommended for just these specific groups, usage will surely expand as the definition of who is 'at risk' expands. Perhaps people whose cholesterol is responding to statins but who don't like the side effects, or someone whose close relative has had heart disease but whose current LDL levels are not high will ask for this treatment as a preventive, or doctors will think 'off label' usage is absolutely proper, assuming no serious side effects. Hell, if the makers are extremely lucky, maybe it will turn out it even treats erectile dysfunction or male-pattern baldness! And then, what about extending to, say, younger ages or even simply to everyone, like putting vitamins in milk or iodine in salt? This is what we mean by usage creep.
One might reasonably say that this is just what should be done. Precedent might suggest that eventually we'll find that the agents are less effective than current tests suggest or have some serious long-term but as yet undiscovered downsides. However, things that can't be known until the drug is used by millions of people for numbers of years. Making decisions about usage is harder than one might think.
One reason for concern about usage creep is already being mentioned in the blaring news stories about the apparently genuinely major advantages of these compounds. That is, the obvious issue of the financial mega-bonanza to be reaped by the pharmaceutical firms. These drugs are going to be very expensive. The money to be made is certain to encourage usage creep. Could we expect otherwise?
But worse than just profiteering is that, even with Obamacare available so that presumably even the poor could have access to these beneficial drugs, putting the whole population, so to speak, on these pills for their whole lives, could bankrupt the health-care funding system that is already a heavy burden on society. It's being suggested that these new pharmaceuticals could simply by themselves eat up any reasonable premium level for health care plans.
But there is another issue, and that relates to truth in advertising and the issue of side effects--and here we don't refer to incomplete data that may be leading to premature approval or anything like that. Instead, it's more of a philosophical issue: What does a list of side effects mean, in this case, and what would the whole truth actually be? What should the manufacturer or the FDA tell you so you would be truly better informed when you take the new drugs for the rest of your life, as so many are likely to do, across the developed world?
|From the Sanofi website; Sanofi is one of the makers of these statin replacements|
What the FDA and medical community doesn't list on the label
The FDA requires that known side effects of drugs be clearly stated on packaging or labeling material, and surely physicians will know about them. Isn't that right? It should be, but there is a sleeping tiger here, that apparently nobody has thought about or, if they have, that they've buried so deep you never will realize it. In fact, there will be huge unstated negative side effects of these new drugs. Indeed, shouldn't a proper labeling for these new medications include something like the following?:
"WARNING: Use of this product will greatly increase your risk of Alzheimer's Disease and other dementias, arthritis and other muscle and joint diseases, some forms of cancer, diminished vision and hearing, other degenerative disorders, and accidental death."Of course such truth in labeling won't happen, and the reasons are subtle and if taken seriously would lead us, as a society, to think more deeply about the role of medicine in health, and of the meaning of health, in a real world in which life is finite. There is no one who can provide 'the' answers to the problems that are raised, and indeed each person would, in principle, provide his/her own answers.
But at least, there should be a societal discussion. The reason has to do with the concept of 'causation' and the demographic realities in a world of competing causes. If these drugs lower LDL cholesterol anywhere nearly as much as they seem on present evidence to do, and if the association between LDL cholesterol and heart disease is as linear as is hoped, then that by itself will eliminate or greatly forestall the occurrence of fatal heart disease in those who take them. But then what?
If people live much longer as a result, they will inevitably get the sorts of diseases that could be included in an empirically correct labeling! If you don't get heart disease, it is simply obvious that you will get something else, and it is likely to be slower and more progressive than the quick end to life that heart attacks can be. Note that our warning list did not include some causes, like kidney failure, diabetes, and the like that could be stalled or avoided by lowering LDL cholesterol--so we are being quite conservative here.
The problem is that of what are known as competing causes, and we've written about it before. It is inevitable that you will die of something. If not heart disease, something else. One might say, well, OK, but at least I'll have more years of life before that something-else gets me. This is likely to be true to some extent, but there are two cautions.
First, people with heart disease often have other health issues because by and large heart diseases gets people at older age, and they are more likely to have less healthy lifestyles. That includes more risky conditions than high cholesterol. So, these other causes may be lurking just around the corner, so the removal of heart disease may mean that the gain in years might not be very much!
Secondly, other disorders that those saved from heart attacks will eventually get, if they don't have them already, are ones with gradual onset: you become more and more affected over time. Mental deficiencies, joint and mobility problems, vision and hearing, are clear examples. And the nature of accelerating risk is that if you slow it down you defer the onset of serious-level symptoms but you also stretch out the decay process at the end: you have more years with more and more serious symptoms before your body finally conks out.
What is 'cause'?
Are we just playing word games here? Is it accurate to suggest that the new drugs will 'cause' dementia? Surely the chemical doesn't mess with neurons! Let's assume that's true and that no such direct molecular effect is ever found. Then the effect of the medication is related to the occurrence of these other traits, but not in a directly causal way.
This raises questions about causation. It is more than simply saying that correlation is not the same as causation, because while the active mechanisms responsible for, say, Alzheimer's or joint disease, are not affected by the LDL-reducing drugs, they open the way for the former to act because the person lives longer. Correlations such as the brand of car you drive being associated with some forms of disease arise because both may be the result of income levels and associated dietary habits. The dietary habits, not the type of car, are causes of interest.
But in the case of competing causes of disease, reduction of one is a sort of mechanistic effect, not just a spurious cause. If a mechanism is changed in a way that allows a different mechanism to proceed for longer times, this is part of the overall mechanism of the related traits. The chronic late-onset diseases most of us in the rich world die of now are directly the result of so successfully controlling infectious diseases, our previous killers. One definition of cause is that if you remove it, the effect changes, in this case the protective effect, relative to cancer, of dying of a heart attack.
And what if widespread use of these new drugs puts serious pressure on the health care system, so that some treatments will have to be deferred or denied to more people than presently? Is that so unlikely? And is that then not a cause of deteriorating health?
And what if it worked miracles and the relative fraction of our population (and the world's population) of wearing-out old people substantially increased? That puts all sorts of pressures and pinches on everyone else, indeed, even on the normal living needs of the increased elderly segment.
Causation is not so simple and straightforward a notion.
So, what is 'health care'?
The new LDL reducers raise many deep, and deeply important questions. The point here is to be realistic about disease in our society and have an open consideration of how to deal with the kinds of game-changing environmental or behavioral aspects of our society, and their long shadow of implications.
In a very serious sense, even if indirectly, the new LDL-lowering agents might have disastrous effects for countless numbers of people. It's a discussion we should be having. The news media should be leading the way, to force that on the scientists and health system.
Indeed, these issues should force us to consider what, exactly, we even mean by 'medical care' and 'health care'. How do they relate to each other, and to the idea of 'public health'?
We think these are real, complex, disturbing, serious truths that have no one answer, and that affect individuals as well as society. This is not a matter of complaining about science, policy or even drug company profits. It is about profound issues in human life, that should be discussed openly and fully, because they affect everyone's future.