Five days before a 2007 article in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that the diabetes drug Avandia was linked to a 43% increase in heart attacks compared with other medications or placebos, a group of scientists and executives from the drug's maker, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), gathered in a conference room at the offices of the Food and Drug Administration in White Oak, Md. The GSK goal: to convince regulators that the evidence that the company's $3 billion-a-year blockbuster drug caused heart problems was inconclusive. To do that, the GSK officials focused not on heart-attack data but on a broader, less well defined category of heart problems called myocardial ischemia. The most recent studies of Avandia, the GSK officials told the FDA, had "yielded information that is inconsistent with an increased risk of myocardial ischemic events," according to sealed court proceedings obtained by TIME.
What GSK didn't tell the FDA was that on May 14, 2007, two days before the White Oak meeting, GSK's Global Safety Board had noted that a new assessment of Avandia studies "strengthens the [cardiac-risk] signal observed in the [previous] analysis." Or that eight days earlier, the company's head of research and development, Moncef Slaoui, had sent an e-mail to its chief medical officer saying Avandia patients showed an "increased risk of ischemic event ranging from 30% to 43%!" Or that the day before the meeting, the company had produced a preliminary draft report that showed patients on Avandia had a 46% greater likelihood of heart attack than those in a control group.
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But the mixed-evidence argument GSK presented to the FDA worked. After months of deliberation, the agency decided to keep the drug on the market —a move worth billions of dollars to GSK but that also may have put millions of patients at risk.
Over the past two decades, as drug after drug has been recalled after winning FDA approval, it has been hard not to wonder if FDA regulators have been captured by the drug industry. FDA critics and industry monitors charge that the drug-approval process is too easy for pharmaceutical companies to game. It is in some ways an unsurprising development. The FDA serves a public insatiably hungry for new medicines. Yet the agency does not have responsibility for performing safety testing. It relies on drug companies to perform all premarket testing on drugs for safety and efficacy. And it relies on industry "user fees" for 65% of its budget for postmarket monitoring of the drugs it approves, thanks to a 1992 law designed to speed treatments to patients. "The FDA's relationship with the drug industry [is] too cozy," says Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa.