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Profile: Michael Weinblatt
Michael Weinblatt was a participant or observer in the following events:
Merck begins the Vioxx Gastrointestinal Outcomes Research (VIGOR) study, involving more than 8,076 subjects. The study is being carried out by a data and safety monitoring board (DSMB) that has been appointed by Merck. The Food and Drug Administration recommends the use of DSMBs but does not require them, nor does it require that the panels are put together by an independent party. Merck appoints Michael Weinblatt of Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston to lead the study. Weinblatt’s wife owns $73,000 in Merck stock, which according to doctors consulted by an NPR investigation, is enough to potentially influence Weinblatt’s judgment. Furthermore, during the course of the study, all the panel’s meetings will be attended by Merck employee Deborah Shapiro, who is present even during the panel’s private deliberations. She is also the notetaker for the meetings. [National Public Radio, 6/8/2006] The VIGOR study is the largest clinical trial ever performed for the drug. Half the participants is given Vioxx, while the other half is given naproxen. The study is designed to determine whether Vioxx causes fewer digestive problems than naproxen, an older painkiller. The outcome of this study is important to Merck because Vioxx’s expected characteristic of being gentler on the stomach would be the drug’s only selling point since there is no evidence that it is a better painkiller than other drugs. The FDA currently requires Vioxx to have the same warning about gastrointestinal bleeding that is carried on the Naproxen label. [USA Today, 10/12/2004; CBS News, 4/28/2005; National Public Radio, 6/8/2006]
The VIGOR study’s safety panel meets for a third time and learns that as of December 1, 1999, the number of Vioxx patients who have experienced heart problems or have died is twice as high as those taking naproxen. The panelists are shown a chart with two lines—one showing the number of deaths in the Vioxx group; the other, deaths in the naproxen group. The chart shows that since the sixth week of the study, the line representing the Vioxx group has been going up at an increasingly brisk pace, while the naproxen group’s line rises slower and is relatively linear. [National Public Radio, 6/8/2006] Some members suggest that diverging lines could be “due to cardioprotective effects of Treatment B,” i.e., that naproxen is somehow reducing the risk of heart problems. [US Food and Drug Administration, 2/1/2001, pp. 6 ] The panel’s chairman, Michael Weinblatt, and Merck statistician Deborah Shapiro write a letter to Merck’s Alise Reicin advising that the company develop a plan to study the cardiovascular results before the VIGOR study is completed. When an investigation by NPR learns about this meeting, it asks three experts to comment on the chart and the panel’s decision. All three say that the study should have been called off immediately because the chart clearly showed that the risk of heart problems among those taking Vioxx increased with time. The panel, in a statement to NPR, claims that it did not cancel the study noting that it was not clear to the panelists at the time whether the different rates of heart problems and deaths were a result of Vioxx causing the cardiovascular problems, or naproxen preventing them. But no study has ever proven that naproxen is cardioprotective. [National Public Radio, 6/8/2006; National Public Radio, 6/8/2006]
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