One of the Obama administration's major initiatives as part of health care reform is comparative effectiveness. Currently, the drug and device companies do almost all of the research. NIH and other government agencies don't often compare which treatments work best and the industry usually only sponsors studies that it knows will make their product come out on top. Thus, it is not surprising that many drug companies do not support this comparative effectiveness. However, their position may be misguided.
A great example of comparative effectiveness was just presented this afternoon at the American Diabetes Association and simultaneously published ahead of press in the New England Journal of Medicine. The trial is called BARI 2D and is a 5 year comparative effectiveness study in over 2,000 type 2 diabetics sponsored by the good old USA (via NIH). In this case, the drug companies won not just once, but twice!
1. Drugs beat interventions. BARI 2D was designed to look at two things. First, in patients with type 2 diabetes who have atherosclerosis (blocked heart arteries), do they do better with interventions like surgery (coronary artery bypass) or percutaneous coronary intervention (where the cardiologist goes in with a catheter to open up a blocked artery with a balloon, often leaving a stent in place) or no interventions and just medications. Previous studies had shown no difference between medical therapy and intervention for stable patients, but the question remained whether or not this would hold true for type 2 diabetics, who are at even higher risk for heart related events. However, the same results were seen. Optimal medical management (think lots of pills) is better than angioplasty and bypass surgery. If I was the head of a drug company, I would be pretty happy with these results.
2. New medicines beat (sort of) old medicines. The second question BARI 2D tried to answer was whether the greatest benefit in this very high risk group of type 2 diabetics would come from insulin providing medicines (insulin, sulfonylurea-which are older drugs) or insulin sensitizing medicines (metformin, and thiazolidinediones or TZD's, which are newer). Again, there was essentially no difference in the primary outcomes of death or major cardiovascular events.
Having the old drugs show no difference then then newer drugs might at first seem like a loss for the drug companies. However, severe hypoglycemia was more frequent among patients assigned to receive insulin provision than among those who received insulin sensitization.This is important, because severe hypoglycemia is bad, and can be life threatening. Even more important, at the 3-year follow-up, the most frequently used drugs in the insulin-provision group were insulin (60.7%) and sulfonylurea (52.0%); in the insulin-sensitization group, the most frequently used drugs were metformin (74.6%) and a thiazolidinedione (62.1%- of which most (55%)was rosiglitazone or Avandia). Specifically, the use of insulin was double in the insulin providing group. If you can achieve the same results without using insulin why wouldn't you? My patients don't like taking insulin. The strips are expensive, checking your blood sugar frequently has been proven to reduce your quality of life, and I already mentioned severe hypoglycemia. This is a loss for those drug companies that make insulin products, but a real win for those drug companies that make pills and other newer insulin sensitizing products. Finally, more than half of the patients in the insulin sensitizing group took Avandia and virtually none took it in the insulin providing group. Guess what? In this group of type 2 diabetics who were at extremely high risk for death and heart attacks, there was absolutely no difference. Thus, BARI 2 D trial confirms what the RECORD trial clearly showedjust the other day: there is no cardiovascular risk associated with Avandia. This is a win for GSK (makers of Avandia) and Takeda (makers of Actos, another TZD).
BARI 2D represents comparative effectiveness at work. It tells us that we should be using medicines (even if some of them are expensive) instead of doing angiography and surgery (even more expensive) in certain patients who are commonly using the later. BARI 2D also shows us that newer (even if some of them are expensive) insulin sensitizing drugs provide equal cardioprotective benefits, but less hypoglycemia and less need for insulin which has many costs associated with it. The drug companies should re-consider their stance on this issue. If they are making novel and useful products, comparative effectiveness will likely be a win for them.
ADDENDUM- In the middle of writing this post, the Wall Street Journal published Diabetes Study Questions Expensive Treatments on this exact same issue. However, they got it wrong on Avandia and Actos. These medicines were shown to provide better sugar control, less hypoglycemia, and less need for insulin. It was indeed disappointing that there was not a statistically significant reduction in death or cardiovascular events. It is possible that longer studies would be needed to show this effect. However, even with no difference in the primary outcome; better glucose control, less hypoglycemia and less use of insulin is a win for these medications, not a loss.