Gleevec: Miracle Cure or Dangerous Drug?

In the August issue of the Journal of Nature Medicine, researchers report that Gleevec (known generically as Imatinib), a drug that treats leukemia patients, may cause serious heart damage. There is evidence of heart failure in 10 patients who took Gleevec.

I read this article both as a two-time cancer survivor and as a personal injury lawyer. To evaluate a drug, you have to evaluate both the risks and the benefits. Studies show 80 percent to 90 percent of chronic myelogenous leukemia (C.M.L) patients on Gleevec were cancer-free for at least five years. Patients die in usually half of the 4,600 new C.M.L. cases diagnosed each year. Accordingly, Novartis, the maker of Gleevec, has a good argument that the drug is not just efficacious but a miracle drug, particularly when you add in the fact that Gleevec can be given by mouth instead of by injection. In fact, even the researchers who reported these adverse events said that patients should not stop taking the drug, but must be watched closely for heart damage.

Does this mean Novartis did everything that it should have done? I don’t know. Certainly, the preference would be that Novartis would have its finger on the pulse of its drug’s side effects as opposed to Nature Medicine breaking this story. You would hope that Novartis has not been more forthcoming because this is a $1.2 billion drug and it fears losing market share. I have no evidence one way or the other. But just because a drug has potentially fatal consequence does not mean that drug should not be on the market. Patients and doctors have to weight the costs and the benefit.

  • Leonard Greiner

    I have taken Gleevec for the better part of a year and my CMP symptons have decreased very much. But with so many side effects, I sought to decraes my dosage from 400 mg day, and without my doctors conawnr, have put muself on and thngs continue to improve. My wonder is if Novartis has set the dosage high to make more money. Would appreicate comments.

  • Ron Miller

    First of all, Leonard, God bless you. I wish you a healthy recovery.

    I can’t speak to the pharmacology of Gleevec intelligently. Is it possible that Novartis deliberately increased the recommended dosage to sell more product? Absolutely. Is it likely based on my experiences – largely bad experiences – working for these pharmaceutical companies? No, I think it is unlikely. It is just not their MO. With the ability to control price, they would more likely just raise the cost for the same dosage.

  • Leonard Greiner

    Dear Ron: Thanks for comments re Gleevec, but I fear we are but taling to each other, with little gain. And,though Gleevec, I believe, is now cauisng problems, it also saved my life. But I wish the powers would look into lighter dosages at my point of the cure. I presently don’t have the guts to go lower, with the (cooked?) data on their side.

  • white

    My husband has been on Gleevec for 6 years now. Thank God for those who researched and developed this drug. BUT – Why is Novartis gouging these cancer patients? The price increased to $4,000 per month (as of 1/5/2010, TODAY). In fact, Novartis raises their price (several hundred dollars), approximately every quarter. That is the purpose of this e-mail. The prices are a financial burden. If the increase continues, we may loose our house. I know many others are in the same situation. I have written Novartis twice with no response. The most important question of all: Why does Novartis continue to raise the cost of Gleevec, when they are no changes to the ingrediants, other than a perforation in the pill? We have no where to turn and are looking for advice. Anyone…?

    FYI – Novartis does offer assistance for some, but you’re (combined) income cannot exceed $10,000 a year. Are they kidding?

    Novartis just extended their patton again…

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