This tragedy - recounted in an article in the March 4 issue of The Lancet by two Stanford University School of Medicine neurologists - serves as a telling case study of what can go wrong in clinical trials. In their article, Annette Langer-Gould, MD, and Lawrence Steinman, MD, warn of the pitfalls of testing a drug with unknown side effects in patients who would do fine without the drug.
The drug in question is natalizumab, which has the brand name of Tysabri. In November 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration fast-tracked its approval for use in multiple sclerosis patients following promising results seen early in two clinical trials. But within months of the approval, some patients taking the drug had developed a rare infection - progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy, or PML - and Smith and one other patient had died.
Langer-Gould, a clinical instructor in neurology, treated a patient who was part of the clinical trial and developed PML after taking Tysabri; the patient survived. But that experience, coupled with an examination of Smith's case, prompted Langer-Gould to approach Steinman about writing an article that would examine the appropriateness of testing a drug on people with no evidence of the disease and who are not disabled at the time of the trial.
"We are arguing that people with no disability should probably not enter into a clinical trial or be recruited into clinical trials, because where is the potential benefit to them if nothing is wrong?" said Steinman, professor of neurology and neurological sciences and of pediatrics.
"This situation represents a systemic problem," said Langer-Gould. "It is not just one company b
Contact: Mitzi Baker
Stanford University Medical Center