Celebrex cuts risk of colon polyps

But painkiller may increase heart problems

September 01, 2006|By Michelle Fay Cortez | Michelle Fay Cortez,Bloomberg News Service

The painkiller Celebrex nearly halves the chance of developing colon polyps - but nearly doubles the risk of heart problems, say newly published studies that may rule out the drug's widespread use for preventing cancer.

The studies, in yesterday's New England Journal of Medicine, suggest that scientists are on the right research track in how they attack the second-most-deadly cancer after lung tumors.

At the same time, the size of the heart risks makes the results "bittersweet," a researcher said.

"It opens the door to further research in trying to prevent colon cancer, but because of the cardiovascular effects, it's not in itself a complete answer," said Bernard Levin, a senior researcher at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas in Houston.

The results of the research first surfaced when the studies were halted in December 2004 because of the heart risks. In 2005, sales for Celebrex, the fourth-biggest drug made by Pfizer Inc., dropped by almost half, to $1.73 billion. Since then, the company has marketed the pain pill in magazine ads and said it expects sales to rebound this year to $2 billion.

Publication of the studies show Celebrex was particularly effective against advanced polyps, lesions that can turn into cancer. The highest dose of the drug cut the risk of advanced polyps 51 percent to 66 percent in the studies.

Heart disease, however, is about five times more common than cancer, even in the high-risk patients with previous polyps included in the study, said Bruce Psaty, professor of medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle, in a telephone interview this week.

"The cardiovascular risks far outweigh even the most optimistic estimates of the potential benefit on colorectal cancer," said Psaty who co-wrote an accompanying editorial on the studies. "That's a huge increase in a common disease."

Both the editorialists and the researchers said Celebrex may be useful for a small group of patients with the highest cancer risk and few cardiovascular problems.

Pfizer, the world's biggest drugmaker, funded the studies and has sent the results to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said Simon Lowry, the company's medical director for Celebrex. Pfizer hasn't made a decision about whether to pursue U.S. regulatory approval of the drug for use in cancer prevention, he said.

About 150,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with colorectal cancer each year, and 55,000 will die from it, according to the American Cancer Society. While death rates can be reduced by up to 40 percent by removing polyps that doctors spot during a colonoscopy, few Americans regularly undergo the screening, recommended for everyone older than 50.

The company has studies involving 40,000 patients under way or in the works to flesh out the drug's impact on cancer, heart risks and stomach complications, Lowry said. New York-based Pfizer is facing more than 1,500 lawsuits over Celebrex and its related Bextra painkiller, which was withdrawn from the market in 2005.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.