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.

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