Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Man Pharma Loves to Hate

It’s the headline lay media outlets love to report: “High-Cost Cholesterol Drug Combo Shows No Benefit Over Lower-Cost Generic Statin.” From a health care reporter’s perspective, nothing is more juicy than a study that shows that a cheap generic drug is more effective than a expensive new medicine. Especially when the study is sponsored by a drug company.

And that story is made even better is when Steve Nissen goes on national television to say things like this: “My advice to physicians is to not use these drugs...for first-line indications anymore. These should really be relegated to drugs of last resort until we have some evidence that they produce a health outcomes benefit.”

But that’s exactly what happened to Merck and Schering-Plough’s hot new cholesterol combo, Vytorin. The drug, which combines another relatively new drug, ezetimibe (Zetia) with generic simvastatin, was found to have no effect on the accumulation of plaque in the arteries, and may even increase plaque growth.

Yikes. No wonder Schering and Merck waited two years to release those findings. Wall Street certainly showed its displeasure: Schering’s stock price fell 8% yesterday, and Merck’s shares slipped 1.3%. And Merrill Lynch downgraded its rating on Schering’s stock, from “buy” to “neutral.”

But Merck and Schering aren’t just in hot water with investors. The companies released the data after Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, opened an investigation into the delay. Now Stupak is sure to haul Merck and Schering executives up to Capitol Hill to testify at what surely will be a very public, very messy hearing.

“In light of today’s results, which were released nearly two years after the Enhance trial ended, it is easy to conclude that Merck and Schering-Plough intentionally sought to delay the release of this data,” Stupak said in the statement. Stupak, of course, was the man behind the Ketek hearings last spring, when FDA’s David Graham returned to Capitol Hill to revive his role as a drug safety whistleblower. So he’s not exactly friendly with Big Pharma.

That’s all bad enough for Schering and Merck. But Nissen, head of cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic, twisted the knife in a bit deeper, appearing in virtually all major news outlets to blast the efficacy of Vytorin and Zetia. (In fact, we would challenge anyone to find a major news story that didn’t quote Nissen.)

Nissen became the go-to guy on cardiovascular drug safety following his unauthorized meta-analysis of GlaxoSmithKline’s Avandia data. With Vyotrin, he adds the mantle of Dr. Efficacy. Here’s what he told NBC’s Today show: “It was a shocking result for the medical community, and it suggests that this mechanism of cholesterol lowering produced by Vytorin and Zetia is simply ineffective at providing any benefits to patients.”

It was comments like those that led to the anti-Merck and Schering “hysteria” on Wall Street, according to Sanford Bernstein analyst Tim Anderson. “In isolation,” Anderson says, “the results probably would have led to a share price rise for SGP and MRK, but largely due to negative comments from prominent cardiologist Steve Nissen, share prices declined.” (Well, either that or analysts underestimated, and continue to underestimate, how bad these results really are--particularly for Schering-Plough, and especially as those same analysts estimate that "about 70 percent of Schering’s earnings depend on Zetia and Vytorin," according to this morning's New York Times.)

Either way, the reaction confirms our belief that Steve Nissen has become a pretty powerful force, and why our colleague, Ramsey Baghdadi, labeled him as a “serial drug killer.” (For Ramsey’s profile of Nissen in The RPM Report, you can find it here. Those who aren’t yet subscribers can sign up for a free trial to read the story.)

There is an important distinction in Nissen’s role in Avandia and Vytorin: he isn’t taking down Vytorin with his own analysis, but using the visibility gained from Avandia to publicize what he sees as a drug that provides minimal efficacy. But given the sharp drop-off in Avandia prescriptions after Nissen got involved, you can guess where Vytorin and Zetia scripts may be headed—especially once AstraZeneca (Crestor) and Pfizer (Lipitor) start using the data in sales calls.

And finally, for those of you that thought the DTC advertising nightmare was somewhat over, think again. Here’s Nissen on Katie Couric’s “Eye to Eye” last night: “We see no evidence of benefit from this very heavily advertised, very heavily used medication.” If that's not an open invitation for more attention from Capitol Hill, we don't know what is.

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