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Today’s breaking breast cancer news is on Avastin. The FDA has just announced, formally, that it will rescind approval for the drug’s use in people with metastatic breast cancer. Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg writes this her statement:

I know I speak on behalf of the many physicians that have been involved with this issue here at the Food and Drug Administration and elsewhere in saying that we encourage patients, and those who support them, to ask hard questions and demand explanations concerning the drugs that are recommended to treat serious illnesses.

On this much I agree with Dr. Hamburg – that patients and others, including doctors who prescribe treatments to patients with likely incurable illnesses, and all medical conditions, for that matter, should ask hard questions.

Others have already, immediately expressed that the FDA did the right thing. Because they think the FDA’s decision was rational, and it was. Likely there’ll be an editorial in the paper I usually read, celebrating the victory of reason over anecdote. The WSJ, whose words tend to align more with business interests, will likely be critical. Opponents of health care reform will, inappropriately and mistakenly, use this as an example of rationing, which it isn’t.

The fact is that many, and possibly most, medical treatments are given in the absence of studies to justify their use. So you might ask, instead, why give chemotherapy to most stage IV cancer patients. Or why give it in the adjuvant setting? Apart from some tumors, like some kinds of lymphoma and leukemia, and common breast and testicular cancers, and a few others, when carefully measured the benefit is often slim.

What I think is that Avastin is a scapegoat of sorts, a costly drug not particularly worse than many others, nor better, and that helps a small minority of women with a lethal disease for reasons their doctors can’t predict or explain.

We experiment, on insurance and Medicare dollars, with so many costly treatments. Bone marrow transplants, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars per patient, for example, are given to some with little formal proof of benefit for the approved indications. But there’s a lobby for these treatments. Support comes from hospitals profiting from transplant procedures and, more subtly, from academic physicians who’ve built careers in that field and write papers about their benefits, complications and management. I might cite other complex, costly and unproved examples in oncology, surgery and other fields of medicine, but that’s not the real point for today.

What I wonder is, ironically, because the data on Avastin were collected so carefully, that its lack of effectiveness over a population of women was better-documented than has been the lack of evidence for other drugs and regimens. Besides, there’s no group of hospitals and doctors whose profit and livelihood, respectively, depends on giving Avastin to just a few people with metastatic breast cancer. There was just Genentech, an easy big-Pharma target, and a few women, pleading for continued access to a drug that’s helped to keep them alive.

(I wonder, also, had those patients who testified been men, would their words have been taken more seriously?)

Meanwhile, doctors can keep giving Avastin to patients with other forms of cancer, for which its efficacy is not so different as you might think. Like any drug, this drug’s response varies from patient to patient for every tumor type that it might be given. And the physicians can still give Avastin, as the commissioner points out in her decision, to women who can pay for it, by circumstances of their particular insurance, or good fortune of wealth. But some of these women’s families will be hurt hard by this FDA decision. Most are in the 99%.

And so maybe what we really need are better doctors, not only in oncology, who would carefully monitor patients when they give any and every medical treatment and stop it if it’s not working, and continue only if it helps, and would communicate and obtain informed consent through meaningful discourse.

If we had that, we’d save a lot of money, and get better care.

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