The Media on Drugs
By SIDNEY TAUREL
When it comes to describing the benefits and risks of prescription drugs, the hyper-competitive, around-the-clock media is rarely at its best. Call the following a case study in the challenge of doing right by doctors and patients -- in spite of the need to feed the media beast with copy.
Our story starts Oct. 24, when several media outlets reported that Eli Lilly and Company had halted two clinical trials for the drug prasugrel -- a possible new therapy for heart-attack patients that Lilly is developing with Daiichi Sankyo. The speculation that followed these reports was that the drug must have failed its initial trials. Within a few days the market capitalization of Eli Lilly fell by about $6 billion.
This speculation was unfounded and, incidentally, false. In early November, the academic TIMI Study Group announced the results of a massive clinical trial showing that prasugrel produced significant improvements in patient outcomes compared with current treatments.
Specifically, the trial, known as TRITON, showed that prasugrel produced a 19% reduction in relative risk for cardiovascular death, nonfatal heart attack, or nonfatal stroke when compared with the drug clopidogrel -- today's standard of care -- and had a favorable benefit-risk profile in a large majority of patients.
Statistical data can be interpreted in different ways. Some experts will reach more nuanced or skeptical conclusions about TRITON. But a Duke University cardiologist told this newspaper, after seeing the trial's results, "If you can't get a drug on the market with that kind of data, we should stop developing drugs."
So what happened in those days after Oct. 24? Lilly's goal was to turn over our prasugrel findings to doctors in a manner that left no doubt as to their scientific rigor and completeness. This meant publishing the findings in a highly respected journal and discussing them directly with top cardiologists, ahead of mass-media reporting. We decided to present these findings to the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) and the Annual Scientific Sessions of the American Heart Association (AHA) on Nov. 4.
NEJM and AHA asked for promises from Lilly and its partners, and we agreed, not to disclose any of the results of TRITON prior to Nov. 4. Such guarantees of exclusivity are not only common, but also appropriate, in focusing expert attention on important research. A definitive source and a "zero hour" of first-hand disclosure for complex scientific data help to limit misinformation.
Doctors and scientists at Lilly and Daiichi Sankyo, of course, had begun to analyze the results of TRITON in the weeks leading up to the AHA meeting. In addition to showing strong efficacy, the data also showed that in three small subgroups of patients, the drug at its current dosage raised the risk of major bleeding relative to its effect on preventing heart attacks.
Lilly had two small clinical trials of prasugrel underway for different research purposes, and we had received no reports of safety concerns from them. But when we saw the TRITON results, we put patients first. Based on the small chance that patients in the three identified subgroups might be given prasugrel and experience serious bleeding, we advised our researchers to suspend the two trials pending a review.
Enter the beast. Ten days before our "zero hour," word leaked out, causing us to confirm that the two prasugrel trials had been suspended, although our promises to NEJM and AHA prevented us from explaining why. The media entered a feeding frenzy, catered by commentators on Wall Street and elsewhere who speculated that prasugrel posed broad risks and had probably failed its major trial. Our stock began its trip south and, more seriously, some doctors and patients were left with false impressions.
Unveiling the data at AHA brought some relief. Still swimming against the tide of rumor, a few stories distorted the TRITON results, but most were balanced. In the end, the Food and Drug Administration will not rely on media reports to reach approval decisions. Lilly is confident that prasugrel will be given a chance to help patients on a large scale.
There are a few lessons here that need to be learned. For the pharmaceutical industry: Preserving the integrity of scientific data and protecting the safety of patients are always the right choices. Stock prices recover but trust is much harder to regain. Trust hinges on our openness in sharing everything we know about who should use our products -- along with when, how and at what dose -- and who should not.
For the media, if I may be so bold: Don't trade in leaks and rumors where scientific data are concerned. Damage to public understanding is hard to repair after it's been done. Wait for real numbers, and take the time to explain statistics and benefit-risk analysis, which cannot be conveyed in sound bites alone. And for would-be pundits: If you have not had firsthand exposure to the scientific results or specialized knowledge under discussion, then qualify your comments if you must make them at all.
We all have a stake in taming this beast -- not for the sake of any company or individual discovery, but for the sake of those who ultimately rely on accurate information for the care of patients.
Mr. Taurel is chairman and CEO of Eli Lilly and Company.