In a previous post, I fretted that grand aspirations for personalized medicine don't gibe with drug companies' histories of doing whatever they can to expand sales, even to people who won't benefit. You would hope that this would not include clearly deceptive marketing, though, since in the U.S. this is supposed to be monitored for accuracy by the Food and Drug Administration.
You be the judge.
To set the stage, here's a current ad for Aricept, a drug that is approved and widely prescribed for Alzheimer's Disease:
Here's the critical quote:
"Studies showed Aricept slows the progression of Alzheimer's symptoms."
That statement has a clear meaning: if you take this drug you'll decline less than you otherwise would have. Of course this claim (which I've heard repeated by a doctor) is critical, because it implies that you're losing ground every month you don't take this drug, so you'd better get on it soon and stay on it (for the rest of your life). It is not the same thing as saying "Aricept relieves Alzheimer's symptoms," which would mean you could try it for a while and see if it helps.
Fortunately, those ultra-fine-print sheets that come with prescription drugs are now available online. Here's a pdf of the prescribing information for Aricept, from the Aricept.com website, which I'm confident was checked by the FDA. Go ahead and follow the link; it's tough reading, but a good habit, as you'll see.
At the top of the first page, in Figure 1, is a plot of the average cognitive scores over time, with and without the drug. (The shifts are small compared to the spread of individual responses, though, so many people who try it may not notice any effect). Here's the key: after patients are taken off the drug, their scores rapidly decline until they are indistinguishable from those of patients who never took it. But don't take my word for it, here's the conclusion in the fine print:
"This suggests that the beneficial effects of ARICEPT® abate over 6 weeks following discontinuation of treatment and do not represent a change in the underlying disease."
Am I missing something?