Dr. Steven Nissen, head of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, by running to Congress and the media about the heart risks of Avandia, has positioned himself as the nation’s de facto drug regulatory czar. Today, he will tell Rep. Henry Waxman, California Democrat and the chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, that he had no choice but to bypass the Food and Drug Administration, because the agency (in both appearance and reality) is too cozy with industry to move in a timely fashion.
But Dr. Nissen, who has often said, “Even the appearance of bias can damage trust as actual impropriety,” has his own credibility gap to deal with. As Dr. Nissen admitted to The Wall Street Journal, he was in touch with Mr. Waxman — but not with the FDA — well before his study was even published in the New England Journal of Medicine. FDA Commissioner Andy von Eschenbach received a letter about Avandia from Mr. Waxman and Dr. Nissen. That means Dr. Nissen was strategizing with Mr. Waxman well before rushing to save the public from cardiovascular Armageddon. Or at least that is how it appears. But “even the appearance of bias can damage trust as actual impropriety,” so says the self-appointed and media-anointed Patron Saint of Drug Safety.
Indeed, avoiding the appearance of bias is why Dr. Nissen tells anyone with a pulse that he donates all “drug industry consulting fees offered to me to a philanthropic charity run by the American College of Cardiology ACC.” Saint Steven the Pure.
Except the “charity” was the Steven E. Nissen Healthy Heart Fund, and it subsidized such philanthropic activities as gym memberships for the staff of the American College of Cardiology. In 2005 the $1 million in the Healthy Heart Fund was folded into the ACC Foundation. In 2006 the ACC elected a new president: Dr. Steve Nissen.
“Even the appearance of bias can damage trust as actual impropriety.” Dr. Nissen regularly claims that the pharmaceutical industry hypes the value of new medicines while soft-pedaling or not publishing safety problems. Yet he has hawked early clinical results of several drugs such as ones he had been paid to study, including some that ended up causing heart attacks and kidney failure.
And then there’s the question of scientific consistency. In his hotly debated New England Journal of Medicine Avandia article, he questioned the FDA’s “use of blood glucose measurements as a surrogate endpoint in regulatory approval.” Yet, the cornerstone of Dr. Nissen’s approach to drug evaluation — the intravascular ultrasound (IVUS) study of plaque in the wall of heart arteries — is itself a surrogate endpoint for regulatory approval of cardiovascular and diabetes medications.
Is hypocrisy too strong a word? Or maybe the word is self-promotion. In 2004 Dr. Nissen was involved in the evaluation of AGI-1067, a drug designed to reduce the level of fatty plaque deposits (atherosclerosis) in a person’s arteries. The company that developed the compound, Atherogenics, predicted the drug would positively influence many different types of serious heart problems. But the original results were unclear.
Enter Dr. Nissen, who did an IVUS re-analysis of the Atherogenics trials. Suddenly, AGI-1067 was a breakthrough. As Dr. Nissen told Forbes Magazine, “There is no other interpretation.” Actually there was. A 2007 study of AGI-1067 showed that it not only failed to reduce plaque but actually increased bad cholesterol levels, decreased good cholesterol and increased the overall number of heart failures. When the negative results of the study were published, Dr. Nissen’s name was not among the authors. Nice touch for a guy who beats up on drug companies for hiding safety problems.
Coincidentally, in the wake of Dr. Nissen’s hit piece on the FDA and Avandia, AGI-1067 was reintroduced. And, coincidentally, Atherogenics wants to see if it treats glycemia, the same condition treated by… Avandia. Another coincidence: glycemia may contribute to arterial plaque — a substance measured by (yes, you guessed it) Dr. Nissen’s IVUS.
Dr. Nissen also worked on a drug called ETC-216, made by the company Esperion. ETC-216 was a synthetic version of good cholesterol. Dr. Nissen did an IVUS study on 47 people and claimed ETC-216 reversed plaque by 4 percent in 5 weeks. He gave several interviews in the press calling it “liquid Drano for the coronary arteries.” (He’s always had a good ear for media soundbites. On Nightline he called Avandia “worse than 9/11.”) Though Dr. Nissen’s presentation about ETC-216 figured in Esperion being acquired for $1.3 billion, there has been no additional study of the drug. Coincidentally, Esperion’s former CEO, Roger Newton, is a friend of Dr. Nissen’s and Delos Cosgrove, CEO of the Cleveland Clinic, is a limited partner of Canaan Partners, a firm that had a stake in Esperion.
For someone who is concerned about the appearance of impropriety, Dr. Nissen’s conduct is characterized by a series of uncomfortable coincidences. Most involve putting his career ahead of the safety of patients. Members of Congress — especially those that exalt him as the unimpeachable savior of the public health — should use today’s hearing to ask Dr. Nissen tough questions about his methods and motives.
Peter J. Pitts is president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest and a former FDA associate commissioner. Dr. Robert Goldberg is vice president at the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest.