Abortion pill deserves more study, panel says Shows promise for other uses

September 09, 1993|By Newsday

WASHINGTON -- A European abortion pill and its chemical cousins show promise for treating a variety of medical conditions and should be aggressively studied for possible use in the United States, says an expert panel.

The panel also urged yesterday rapid submission to U.S. authorities of existing European clinical data on the use of the pill, RU-486, for first-trimester abortions in France, Sweden and Britain.

The study panel said the European experience has shown RU-486 to be a "safe and efficacious medical treatment for early pregnancy termination."

The panel was convened by the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences.

Leslie Z. Benet, head of the study panel and a pharmacist at the University of California, San Francisco, said in an interview that the research data on other uses of RU-486 are "fragmentary but exciting."

The seven-member panel recommended aggressive research on RU-486 and other chemicals in its class -- called antiprogestins -- with an eye to bringing some of them to the U.S. market.

The report said the chemicals have shown promise in regulating the menstrual cycle, inducing labor in childbirth and treating two female pelvic disorders, endometriosis and fibroids.

The chemicals have been studied as well for the treatment of certain brain tumors, breast cancer and an adrenal disorder called Cushing's disease.

Antiprogestins also may be useful for birth control, the report said, both as alternatives to existing oral contraceptives or as postcoital, or "morning after," pills.

Anti-abortion groups have vigorously opposed any efforts to bring RU-486 to the United States and have threatened boycotts of drug companies that seek to distribute it. Richard Glasow, education director for the National Right to Life Committee, called the new report "pro-abortion propaganda" that "merely recycles exaggerated claims about the non-abortion uses of RU-486."

Mr. Benet acknowledged that research on non-abortion uses of RU-486 is "uneven in some areas and there needs to be more work." He said the most promising application may be in the treatment of meningiomas, non-malignant but life-threatening tumors that arise in membranes surrounding the brain.

But while RU-486 may have potential non-abortion uses, Mr. Benet said the panel's report was not meant to develop what he called "backdoor" support for the drug. He said any application to use the drug for non-abortion purposes in the United States inevitably would be caught up in the debate over its first use as an abortion pill.

Although President Clinton reversed the Bush administration's policy against RU-486 and asked the Department of Health and Human Services to look into possible licensing and manufacturing of the drug in the United States, analysts say the process could take years.

In April, Roussel-Uclaf, the French manufacturer of RU-486, said it would license the drug to the Population Council, a non-profit group based in New York City, and supply the council with enough of the drug to do clinical tests on at least 2,000 women. The council must line up a U.S. manufacturer for the drug and sponsor an FDA application for its use.

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