A Drug's Dark Side

Parents whose teens committed suicide while taking the acne drug Accutane want to know why they weren't warned about possible deadly side effects.

March 04, 2001|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Special to the Sun

On that snowy January day last year, Brandon Troppman seemed to be loving life. He put on a new shirt and combed his hair just so before heading to the mall to hang out with his high school sweetheart.

"Cool shades," he told his stepmother in the car, laughing. At Montgomery Mall, he and his girlfriend picked out a CD, and he could hardly wait to listen to it when he got home. At 6:30 that evening, he talked on the phone with his best friend, laughing and making his friend laugh, as always.

An hour later, Brandon hanged himself from a rod in his bedroom closet at his Chevy Chase home.

His father, stepmother, friends, teachers and priest shared a sense of disbelief. Brandon, the lively, smart 15-year-old whose smile never seemed to fade, hadn't appeared depressed, never abused drugs or alcohol, never talked of suicide. In the months after his death, his parents reached a conclusion that now seems inescapable to them: The popular acne drug Accutane, they believe, led to their son's suicide.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has received reports of at least 66 suicides, another 55 suicide attempts and more than 1,300 cases of psychiatric problems among Accutane users. About a half million people a year use the drug to treat severe acne, according to Accutane maker Roche Laboratories.

The pharmaceutical giant points out that no scientific studies have been conducted on a possible link between Accutane and depression, suicide attempts or suicides.

Suspicions about such a link have intensified in the past few months. New reports have surfaced almost daily since October, when Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., publicly blamed the drug for his 17-year-old son's suicide and demanded better reporting of Accutane's possible links to depression and suicide.

The congressman's son, Bart "BJ" Stupak Jr. -- a popular high school football player and president-elect of the student council -- came home from his junior prom and shot himself in the early morning hours of Mother's Day, 2000.

About a month later, going through BJ's belongings, Laurie Stupak found the Accutane pills her son had taken for five months. Out of curiosity, she logged on to the Internet and typed "Accutane" in a search engine.

"Look at this," her husband recalled her saying, as she showed him printouts. What the search yielded enraged the congressman and began what became a crusade in the memory of his son.

By the time he went public last fall, Stupak had discovered thousands of letters, dozens of suicides among Accutane users, more than 50 suicide attempts and 160 hospitalizations. He found an internal 1988 FDA memo that stated: "Given all the pieces of evidence available, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Accutane use ... is associated with severe psychiatric disease in some patients."

The memo also recommended that the agency consider pulling Accutane from the market amid reports of birth defects linked to the drug.

Stupak also learned that in 1998 the FDA required a new warning included in packages to physicians, but unknown to users: "Accutane may cause depression, psychosis and, rarely, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts and suicide."

Then came the discovery that French health officials required Roche to add "suicide warning" to the drug's risks in 1997, and the following year, the United Kingdom and Ireland required similar warnings.

The FDA was unaware of these warnings abroad, according to Stupak, and most Accutane users in America remained unaware of any mental health risks.

"The whole system broke down here," the congressman says. "The information the consumer should have been aware of never got to the consumer. The FDA should have informed people. They should have made sure that the information got to the people; they never did."

Stupak, like some other members of Congress, says he's convinced that at least 10 times as many as the 66 FDA-reported suicide attempts will prove to be linked to Accutane.

"You just have too many perfectly good kids using Accutane who feel compelled to take their own lives," he says.

Subhed here

When James and Cely Troppman heard about Bart Stupak's son, the circumstances seemed eerily similar to that of their own son's suicide. Both boys had good grades, lots of friends, a gregarious nature and no symptoms of depression or suicidal tendencies before taking Accutane.

Brandon Troppman had been ecstatic about being accepted into Gonzaga College High School, the elite Jesuit school in Washington, where he was a freshman. The tall, skinny boy with dark hair and a big smile bolted awake every morning, eager to get to school.

At their Chevy Chase home, Jim and Cely Troppman look at pictures of a life that ended too soon -- "Brando" hitting his first homer in Little League, beaming while holding the fish he caught, Brando in Bermuda on a bike, whale-watching in Maine, strolling in Germany.

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