Dispatch February 2010

The Wonder Drug Myth

Even the pharmaceutical industry's best products are imperfect, working in only half—or fewer—patients. It's time for better targeting.

In the past 50 years, modern pharmacology has created dozens of treatments that improve and save lives. Cardiovascular drugs like beta- blockers have drastically reduced deaths from heart attacks and heart disease. For every million people who take a statin drug for high cholesterol, there are 50,000 fewer angioplasties, surgeries, heart attacks, strokes, and cardiovascular deaths, studies have shown. And in the past 15 years, drugs have transformed AIDS from a death sentence into a managed disease. These are just some of the triumphs of pharmacology, and each case is a bona fide miracle, a life transformed.  

But not every drug can deliver a fairy-tale ending. Many of the stories we expect from drugs are partly fictions, hiding in a gauze of ambiguous results, placebo effects, and messy side effects. Though it’s widely known that the pharmaceutical industry tests hundreds of substances to get the handful that work, most people assume that those that are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are actually effective. But the numbers say otherwise.

Even the best drugs have imperfect chances of working for any one person. Asthma drugs work in about 60 percent of patients. Migraine drugs are effective in only about half of cases. Drugs for Alzheimer’s disease work in about 30 percent of patients. And those are exceptional results compared to cancer drugs, which at best work about 25 percent of the time.

What’s more, despite advances, the pipeline of new drugs has slowed to a crawl, as one promising candidate after another has petered out in the last phases of development. "The low-hanging fruit has been picked," says Derek Lowe, PhD, a drug discovery chemist and industry pundit. William Haseltine, PhD, a former researcher at Harvard Medical School and the founder of Human Genome Sciences and eight other biotechnology companies, notes that fewer than 1 in 100 new ideas reaches clinical trials and fewer than 10 percent of these are approved for sale.

This high failure rate means that the few drugs that do get through the gauntlet of clinical trials and FDA approval become must-win propositions. A company must pull out all the stops to sell the drug, which means marketing.  

The drug industry’s intense marketing to physicians has been well covered. But it’s worth noting here that some marketing is designed to push out perfectly worthwhile older treatments (whose patent protection has often expired and can therefore be sold as cheap generics) in order to advance newer treatments (which are under patent protection, and therefore are more expensive).

But are the new drugs really better? The FDA doesn’t require comparative clinical trials, only proof that the drug beats a placebo. So unless somebody were to compare drugs head to head, it’s almost impossible to say. That was the premise behind a landmark study by the name of ALLHAT (short for Antihypertensive and Lipid-Lowering Treatment to Prevent Heart Attack Trial), begun in 1994. Various treatments for high blood pressure were compared side by side in order to see, once and for all, which treatment was really best.  At the time the study began, the use of diuretics and beta-blockers was in decline, while three newer treatments—calcium channel blockers, angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors (known as ACE inhibitors), and alpha-adrenergic blockers—were on the rise. But since these newer drugs had only been compared to placebo when working their way to FDA approval, there was no way to know which treatment was most effective.

The study, which recruited 42,000 individuals with elevated blood pressure, was one of the most ambitious ever carried out for the condition. The subjects were divided into four groups and given one of four treatments: a diuretic, an ACE inhibitor, a calcium channel blocker, or an alpha blocker. Within a few years, the alpha blocker arm of the trial was stopped: Patients were showing a 25 percent increased risk of heart disease. The other 30,000 patients continued their protocols for 5 years, and then the results were analyzed.

Published in 2002 and elaborated upon in 2006, the results were a disaster for the drug industry. Not only was the alpha blocker deemed too suspect to use, but the calcium antagonist and the ACE inhibitor both fell short of the cheap, common, and old-fashioned diuretic in lowering blood pressure and reducing the risk of heart disease. Patients on the newer, patented drugs had higher rates of stroke and heart failure.  

The ALLHAT researchers could hardly contain their glee. “This should really cause us to stop and think about defining what ‘better’ means in terms of real outcomes and not sales pitches,” said Robert Califf, MD, a cardiologist at Duke Medicine and a member of the ALLHAT Data and Safety Monitoring Board, when the results became public.  “The real news here is, Who knows what other inexpensive generic drugs that are actually better are not being used because there’s no one out there selling them to doctors?”

Presented by

Thomas Goetz is the executive editor of Wired Magazine, and author of the new book The Decision Tree: Taking Control of Your Health in the New Age of Personalized Medicine. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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