Blog | Monday, November 9, 2015

2 expensive drugs to lower cholesterol that may not actually work (but perhaps they will)


The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved in July of 2015 an injectable monoclonal antibody alirocumab (Praluent) which lowers LDL or “bad cholesterol.” The drug is produced by Regeneron, given by injection once every 2 weeks, and will cost $14,600 wholesale per year. In August, evolocumab (Repatha) was FDA approved. It, too, is a monoclonal antibody and will cost $14,100 wholesale when it is finally released. It was developed and will be marketed by Amgen.

These drugs are antibodies, produced in hamster ovary cells in vats, which, when injected, bind to proprotein convertase subtilisin/kexin type 9 (PCSK9), making it less active. PCSK9 normally reduces the liver's ability to remove low density lipoprotein (LDL) from the blood. The main drug class that we have now which reduces LDL is the statins, also known as HMG CoA reductase inhibitors, which reduce the production of cholesterol. A couple of common statins are atorvastatin (Lipitor) and simvastatin (Zocor.) I have ranted about them copiously in the past.

The reason we worry about LDL is that high levels of it seem to be associated with heart attacks and strokes, and people with a genetic defect that raises their LDL to very high levels often die young of heart attacks. There are many drugs which can lower the LDL levels, but the statins work best and also have been shown to reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes in high risk patients. The studies are less clear about their benefits for lower risk people. Many drugs which lower the LDL do not reduce the risk of strokes or heart attacks, and it may be that statins have positive effects due to their reduction of inflammation or some other positive effect on blood vessels.

In 2013, recommendations from the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology changed from recommending using medications to lower cholesterol below certain levels, depending on level of risk, using diet and medications, to simply using statins for everyone at elevated risk of vascular disease, such as heart attack or stroke. Statins don't appeal to everyone, primarily due to side effects of muscle pain and weakness, also sometimes problems with thinking and memory, so this approach is not universally applicable. But with statins now mostly generic, this approach costs only about $150 per year and is pretty effective.

There is another problem with this approach (besides the fact that it puts huge numbers of people who might never have trouble with vascular disease on a statin drug with unclear long term side effects). There is no room in these statin-based recommendations for non-statin drugs, especially absurdly expensive ones that were finally released after more than 10 years of research by powerful drug companies.

The PCSK9 drugs have been approved for use in patients with familial high cholesterol syndromes and those with known disease of the coronary arteries whose cholesterol remains high despite statins. Insurance companies and anyone else with concerns about rising medical costs are concerned that doctors will start prescribing these drugs with gay abandon to everyone whose cholesterol worries them, with a multi-billion dollar impact on health care costs. The drug companies promise to provide the drugs for less money to patients who can't afford them and to cut deals with insurance companies, but the costs may still be staggering.

Recently I saw 2 articles suggesting that we start to obsess about cholesterol levels again, shifting away from the recently accepted approach of simply treating everyone at high risk of heart disease with statins. The first, in JAMA, was authored by 3 physicians employed by the healthcare company CVS, saying that if we don't start checking LDL levels and targeting higher ones for treatment, anyone with very high risk will be put on PCSK9 injections. CVS, as a pharmacy benefit management company, stands to lose money if patients' drug bills go up astronomically. Then again, they might pass the costs on to consumers and manage to make money. Plus, CVS sells point of care cholesterol blood tests, so I'm not sure where their interests lie.

The second was an “educational activity” presented by Medscape, featuring a discussion by 3 physicians with academic affiliations (2 from Harvard Medical School) who would all like to go back to checking LDL levels and using medications to get the LDL as low as possible so as to reduce the risk of heart attacks. The activity was financed by Regeneron and Sanofi, who make the new injectable super expensive cholesterol drug, and all of the experts have been on the payrolls of one or both of the companies that produce these drugs. They are very excited about how well these new drugs lower the LDL, and they expect that when studies come out looking at reducing risk of heart attacks they will actually have some clinical benefit. They talk about how many patients might be “candidates” for this therapy, as if it's some kind of a sought after political office. That part is just plain creepy.

There are so many problems with all of this. First and most importantly, we don't know if these super expensive drugs actually reduce the risk of heart attacks. We won't know until 2017, when the first of the many studies which are ongoing will be available. It doesn't matter at all if they lower LDL levels, since high LDL levels aren't actually a sickness. The excitement about this new drug will again focus us away from the fact that lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking and becoming at least moderately active are even more effective in reducing risk for all kinds of vascular disease and other miseries than any medication we have produced. It's very likely that patients who continue to smoke and abuse their bodies in other ways will be put on these drugs, because those are the patients who are at highest risk of heart disease. Do we really want to be directing resources in this direction?

And what about the cost? Why $14,600 per year? What a crazy number. Probably we should just shelve it until we know if it works, then, if it does, figure out who actually needs it.

Janice Boughton, MD, ACP Member, practiced in the Seattle area for four years and in rural Idaho for 17 years before deciding to take a few years off to see more places, learn more about medicine and increase her knowledge base and perspective by practicing hospital and primary care medicine as a locum tenens physician. She lives in Idaho when not traveling. Disturbed by various aspects of the practice of medicine that make no sense and concerned about the cost of providing health care to every American, she blogs at Why is American Health Care So Expensive?, where this post originally appeared.