Anemia Drug Made Billions, but at What Cost?
On the day Jim Lenox got his last injection, the frail 54-year-old cancer patient was waiting to be discharged from the Baltimore Washington Medical Center. He’d put on his black leather coat. Then a nurse said he needed another dose of anemia drugs.
His wife, Sherry, thought that seemed odd, because his blood readings had been close to normal, but Lenox trusted the doctors. After the nurse pumped the drug into his left shoulder, the former repairman for Washington Gas said he felt good enough to play basketball.
The shots, which his cancer clinic had been billing at $2,500 a pop, were expensive.
Hours later, Lenox was dead.
For years, a trio of anemia drugs known as Epogen, Procrit and Aranesp ranked among the best-selling prescription drugs in the United States, generating more than $8 billion a year for two companies, Amgen and Johnson & Johnson. Even compared with other pharmaceutical successes, they were superstars. For several years, Epogen ranked as the single costliest medicine under Medicare: U.S. taxpayers put up as much as $3 billion a year for the drugs.
The trouble, as a growing body of research has shown, is that for about two decades, the benefits of the drug — including “life satisfaction and happiness” according to the FDA-approved label — were wildly overstated, and potentially lethal side effects, such as cancer and strokes, were overlooked.
Last year, Medicare researchers issued an 84-page study declaring that among most kidney patients, the original and largest market for the drugs, there was no solid evidence that they made people feel better, improved their survival or had any “clinical benefit” besides elevating a statistic for red blood cell count.
It was a remarkable finding of futility: While drugmakers had seen billions in profits over 22 years, much of it from taxpayers, millions of patients had been subjected to dangerous doses that might have had little advantage.
How did this happen?