Ending Medical Reversal: Doc-to-Doc with Vinay Prasad, MD

Ending Medical Reversal: Doc-to-Doc with Vinay Prasad, MD

"Medical Reversal" occurs when new data demonstrates that a commonly-accepted practice is not beneficial or even harmful to patients. Dr. Vinay Prasad is a world-expert in this phenomenon. I spoke to him about the trends in medical reversals, their underpinnings, and how they can be ended in the future. His book is entitled "Ending Medical Reversal: Improving Outcomes, Saving Lives".

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"What Used to be Fraud is Now Alternative Medicine": Doc-to-Doc with Steve Novella, MD

"What Used to be Fraud is Now Alternative Medicine": Doc-to-Doc with Steve Novella, MD

Dr. Steven Novella is a faculty member in the Yale School of Medicine and host of the wildly popular podcast "Skeptic's Guide to the Universe". I got to sit down with him to talk about science-based medicine, snake oil, and dealing with patients' occasionally strange beliefs.

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70,000 Children are Missing. Well, their Data is...

70,000 Children are Missing. Well, their Data is...

An article in the journal Pediatrics has exposed the ethical breach that occurs when a child participates in a clinical trial that is never published. For the video version, click here.

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Does Addyi add up? A definitive take on flibanserin for Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder


For the video version of this post, click here. There’s a new drug on the market that is either A) the greatest revolution in women’s sexual health since oral contraceptives or B) a shining example of the FDA’s ineptitude when it comes to drug approval.


If you’ve watched TV, listened to the radio, or, basically, been awake at all for the past week, you’ve heard of the FDA-approved drug flibanserin, marketed as Addyi.


Like all things that have to do with sex in the United States, Addyi’s approval has been very controversial. Emotions run high on both sides of the issue, but few stories address the data that led to approval in the first place. In this in depth look, we’ll examine the numbers and arm clinicians with the information you need when patients arrive asking for the “little pink pill”.

The Pill in Question

Let’s get one thing out of the way quickly.  This is not female “Viagra”.  It is not an as-needed drug.  It is actually a complex serotonin receptor ligand that is taken daily.  In fact, it started off life as an antidepressant.


Studies of its antidepressant effects were not compelling enough for Boehringher-Ingelheim, the drug’s developer, to move forward.

But there was an interesting side effect.  Some women in these studies described increased sexual desire and more frequent sexual activity.  Sensing a potential goldmine, BI ran several randomized controlled trials to demonstrate the drug’s efficacy and safety.  These trials all have somewhat unfortunate acronyms – DAISY, VIOLET, and BEGONIA.

These trials enrolled a total of around 2400 pre-menopausal women with hypoactive sexual desire disorder or HSDD.  They all had to be in monogamous and, for some reason, heterosexual relationships. HSDD is characterized by low sexual desire that is disturbing to the woman and that can not be explained by factors like medications, psychiatric illness, problems in the relationship, lack of sleep, etc.  The HSDD also had to be acquired – there must have been a prior period of normal sexual functioning.

BI needed to show the FDA two things to prove the drug works.  1 – that the drug increased “desire”.  And 2 – that the drug actually increased sexual activity.

The FDA requires two randomized trials for drug approval.  DAISY and VIOLET were supposed to be those trials, but there was a problem.  Flibanserin significantly increased the number of “sexually satisfying events”

But it did not increase a daily “desire score” as captured by an E-diary entry. Failing to meet both endpoints, the drug was denied approval by the FDA in 2010.  Boehringer Ingelheim then sold the drug to the small startup Sprout Pharmaceuticals.

One of the secondary desire metrics, however, was positive in these trials, so the BEGONIA trial used sexually satisfying events and the female sexual function index –desire score as its co-primary endpoint. The desire score here comprised two questions, take a look:

Female sexual function index - desire score

In the BEGONIA trial, both of these outcomes favored flibanserin over placebo:

You can see in the charts that you get about a half a point improvement in desire over placebo, and maybe one sexually satisfying event per month compared to placebo.

But the average performance of a drug often doesn’t give you a sense of what the range was like.  I was able to reconstruct the distribution of change in sexually satisfying events using some data from one of the trials:

Distribution of change-in-SSE in the two groups

Here Red is placebo, green is flibanserin.  The important thing to note is that, though the average flibanserin-taker gained 2.5 SSEs per month, the range was quite variable.

Now armed with a positive trial, FDA approval was again sought and again denied, this time due to concerns over side-effects.

Twice as many women randomized to flibanserin stopped the drug due to adverse events than did those taking placebo:

Central nervous system depression: somnolence, fatigue, or sedation, were seen in 21% of the women on flibanserin compared to just 7% of placebo-treated patients.

Pharmacokinetic studies nicely demonstrated that CYP3A4 inhibitors like fluconazole and grapefruit juice increased the blood levels of flibanserin. These are pretty easily avoided. Oral contraceptives are also mild inhibitors of these enzymes, and it does look like the somnolence side effects of the drugs are exacerbated by OCP use.

And then there is alcohol.  If there’s one thing you hear about this drug – it’s don’t mix it with alcohol.  What’s the data? Well, there’s not much.

At FDA urging, a small study of 25 individuals (almost all men) was conducted to measure the effect of combining flibanserin with alcohol. As you can see, mixing the two resulted in a synergistic drop in blood pressure.  In that study, 5 people (or 20%) had a severe adverse event (mostly severe somnolence).


It’s worth noting that flibanserin alone was more likely to cause somnolence than either low or high-dose alcohol alone.

You hear a lot about fainting in the news coverage of flibanserin.  How many women passed out in the phase three trials? 14 out of around 2400.  Ten were taking the drug, and four were taking placebo.

Not to be denied, Sprout pharmaceuticals did two things.  First, they did more studies to characterize the drug’s safety profile.

For example:

The FDA commissioned a “driving” study to be sure that women who take this drug at night are safe to drive the next day.

Driving Ability and Reaction Time


Flibanserin is green here and what you see is basically that the drug has no effect on cognition or reaction time.  Sleepy, yes.  Dangerous? Probably not.

The second thing Sprout did is to start the “even the score” campaign.  Funded by Sprout pharmaceuticals, this was a marketing campaign directed squarely at the FDA in order to pressure drug approval.


The idea here was that there were all these drugs for male sexual dysfunction and none for female sexual dysfunction, and that somehow reflected bias at the level of the FDA. Female sexuality is something our society does not handle particularly well, so I get the need for movements like this, but the fact that it was funded by the very people likely to benefit financially from it does feel a bit, well, distasteful.

That is a lot of scratch.

But shady marketing practices doesn’t mean the drug is bad any more than the presence of real gender bias in society makes the drug good.

So is the drug good?  That’s the billion dollar question.  The practical answer is that it’s up to the woman taking it.  Is one additional sexually satisfying experience a month worth the side effects (which, contrary to the popular media portrayal, seem to be rather mild)?  Well, they asked the women in the Begonia study how much their HSDD had improved.  Here are the results:

Placebo is a powerful drug


All told, about 50% of the women taking flibanserin felt that it benefited them. Just under 40% of the women taking placebo felt that way. This leads to my major prediction for this drug.  Despite the side-effects, it will be popular.  In real-life, there are no placebo controls.  50% of women will feel better. And yes, some of that will be due to the placebo effect.

The real problem with these studies, though, is not that flibanserin is a risky drug.  The problem is that the control group got placebo. My question isn’t whether the drug works better than placebo, my question is whether it works better than sex therapy and / or couples therapy. If that study ever gets done, it probably won’t be run by Sprout Pharmaceuticals.


*Thanks to PhDecay (follow her on twitter here) for her advice with this article.

You operate on appendicitis, right? Right?!

-Don't_Gamble_with_Appendicitis-_-_NARA_-_514142 For the video version of this post, click here.

If Grey’s Anatomy has taught us anything, it’s that you have to operate on appendicitis. This fact is imbued in the cultural zeitgeist - it’s the first book of the Madeline series for crying out loud. But paradigms, even one as inertial as this one, can shift.

Appearing in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a clinical trial attempted to show that, for appendicitis, antibiotic treatment alone may be no worse than a surgical approach.

Finnish researchers, led by Paulina Salminen, took 530 individuals with uncomplicated appendicitis (no perforation or appendicolith, basically), and randomized them to go to the operating room, or to get antibiotics instead: 3 doses of ertapenem (a broad-spectrum, IV antibiotic) followed by a week of oral levofloxacin and flagyl.  After about a year of follow-up, the big question was how many people in the antibiotic group would have had to undergo surgery.

Of the 257 patients in the antibiotic group, 15 got operated on during the initial hospital stay. Another 40 would be operated on within the following year, a total of roughly 27% of the group.  This missed the pre-specified non-inferiority target, but there are still some interesting numbers to look at.

First of all, let’s consider why there was a surgical group at all. The only reason, really, is to look at the complication rate so we can see what antibiotics might help us avoid.  Of the 273 people in the surgical group, 20% had complications, about half of which were surgical site infections and the remainder were due to pain and abdominal complications. Surgery has risk - and avoiding those risks, even in just 73% of cases, might be worthwhile.

But major caveat here: Almost all of these appendectomies were performed using an open technique, not laparoscopically. This is sort of crazy.  Laparoscopic appendectomies lead to fewer infections, fewer abdominal complications, and a shorter length of stay. In speaking with some surgeons, I was told that the only reason they’d consider an open technique is for cases of complicated appendicitis, cases which were specifically excluded from this trial.

The authors write that they encouraged open appendectomies since resource-poor areas of the world might not have laparoscopic equipment, but this really ends up stacking the deck against surgery. If I were given the choice of a quick laparoscopic appendectomy with guaranteed results versus a 25% recurrence rate with antibiotics, I might take the surgery.  But if my only choice was open surgery - with a risk of adhesions, obstruction, infection - well, antibiotics might just make the cut.