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Allergan v. FDA: Where Does Disseminating Safety Information End and Promotion Begin?

Posted Feb 03 2010 12:00am

In the Fall of 2009, the drugmaker Allergan made waves when it sued the FDA alleging that the ban on off-label promotion was chilling its “First Amendment right to share truthful medical information with physicians about how to safely use Botox off-label [to treat muscle spasticity] to achieve a benefit while minimizing risk of serious adverse events.”  Allergan was back in the news last week when the LA Times reported that trial was set to begin in a case brought against Allergan by the mother of Kristen Spears, a seven-year-old girl with cerebral palsy who died after being injected with Botox to treat muscle spasticity in her legs.

Photo by Rebonnet via Flickr

Photo by Rebonnet via Flickr

Allergan manufactures two FDA-approved botulinum toxin products, Botox Cosmetic, the well-known anti-wrinkle treatment, and Botox, which is approved to treat, among other conditions, cervical dystonia, “a movement disorder that causes [the muscles of the neck and shoulders] to contract and spasm involuntarily.”  Botox is also frequently used “off-label” for conditions it is not approved to treat, including muscle spasticity.  Per the NIH,  locally-injected Botox “has become a standard treatment for overactive muscles in children with spastic movement disorders such as cerebral palsy.”  The FDA agrees.  An agency physician describes Botox as a “commonly used” and “very effective” treatment for spasticity, which he characterizes as a “significant disability[y.]“  Per the LA Times, Botox can “sometimes help young patients walk without surgery.”

While the NIH’s website states that the undesirable side effects of Botox are “mild and short-lived,” the FDA’s informs physicians that “a Boxed Warning has been added to the prescribing information to highlight that botulinum toxin may spread from the area of injection to produce symptoms consistent with botulism,” “that swallowing and breathing difficulties can be life-threatening and there have been reports of deaths related to the effects of spread of botulinum toxin,” and “that children treated for spasticity are at greatest risk for these symptoms[.]”

In addition to requiring the addition of the black box warning to the Botox label, the FDA has ordered Allergan and other manufacturers of botulinum toxin products to adopt a Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS) which includes “a Medication Guide [for patients] and Communication Plan, including a Dear Health Care Provider letter, and a timetable for submission of assessments.”

In its complaint against the FDA, Allergan alleges that while “the boxed warning and REMS materials identify the risk of potential distant spread of toxin effect, … they do not give physicians using Botox for spasticity specific guidance about how to further minimize that risk while still obtaining an acceptable therapeutic effect.”  Allergan wants to provide physicians with specific information about treating spasticity including “proper dosing, patient selection, and injection technique.”  Allergan argues, with good reason I believe, that if it were to, say, develop a slide deck about dosing, patient selection, and injection technique in treating spasticity and present it to physicians it would be exposing itself to criminal liability for promoting an off-label use.  In its brief in opposition, the FDA disagrees — sort of — arguing that disseminating safety information about unapproved uses is “not necessarily” promotion and that Allergan has “ample room” “to disseminate truthful, non-promotional information about dangers associated with unapproved uses of Botox.”  (I will have more to say about the parties’ legal arguments in a subsequent post.)

In an interesting twist, the LA Times reports that Kristen Spears’ pediatrician and his nurse practitioner wife testified in depositions that they “learned to use Botox on children with cerebral palsy at Allergan-sponsored seminars in 2000 and 2001″ and that “Allergan’s sales agents discussed the use of Botox for juvenile cerebral palsy patients … repeatedly, visiting the practice about 50 times over several years.”  They also claimed that they were told by sales representatives that other doctors were using “in range of 10 to 15 units” of Botox per kilogram to treat their pediatric patients.  Dr. Mitchell Brin, Allergan’s Chief Scientific Officer for Botox, testified that fifteen units per kilogram, which is the dose given Kristen Spears, is nearly twice the maximum dose that the company considers safe for children.  He also testified that, because of the ban on off-label promotion, Allergan did not disseminate its maximum dosage information to physicians.  If it is true that Allergan’s sales force was providing doctors with dosing information gleaned from anecdotal reports from other doctors they called on while the experts in the company’s medical department kept their dosing knowledge to themselves, it is an example of an all-too-common disconnect between the field and headquarters that in this case may have had tragic consequences.

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