FDA Panel Recommends Approval of Another Iffy Weight-Loss Drug

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Pharmaceutical companies are rushing to produce new weight loss drugs. But some of them come along with alarming side effects. 

Food Politics
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I was riveted by an article in today's New York Times about the latest decision of an FDA drug advisory panel.

The panel voted to approve a new weight-loss drug, lorcaserin. The vote was mixed: 18 for approval, four against, and one abstention. The majority felt that the benefits outweighed the risks and that even if there were risks, "new tools are needed to treat a major health problem."

The benefits are worth a look.

  • People taking the drug lost an average of 5.8 percent of their body weight in a year, compared to 2.5 percent for people taking a placebo. This difference is below the FDA's standard for approval which requires a five percent difference.
  • Among those taking the drug, 47 percent lost at least five percent of their weight after a year, whereas only 23 percent of those taking the placebo did so. This meets a second FDA standard for approval.

What about the risks? The drug:

  • Causes tumors in rats (although perhaps at higher doses than might be taken by people).
  • Damages heart valves (in the same way the withdrawn drug, Fen-Phen, did).

Also in the Times is a piece by Dr. Danielle Ofri on her experience with patients who want weight-loss drugs.

She quotes from an essay called "Lemons for Obesity" by Dr. Michael S. Lauer, who was a minority voter on the FDA panel that approved the weight-loss drug Qnexa earlier this year.

The weight-loss field is strewn with lemons, more so than other areas of medicine, Dr. Lauer argues. Because of the enormous potential market for these drugs -- two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese -- pharmaceutical companies rush new drugs to market after conducting only small clinical trials. The F.D.A. and doctors are complicit in the process, Dr. Lauer says, leaving the population at large to act essentially as guinea pigs.

Shares of the maker of the drug nearly doubled after the decision. The Times reported that "Arguments by investors have been passionate."

People who cannot easily lose weight are desperate for help.

But is it ethical to put them at this kind of risk?

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This post originally appeared on Food Politics, an Atlantic partner site.



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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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