Three years ago I was on a shuttle bus headed into downtown London from Heathrow airport. I felt awful. When you’ve spent the night in a cramped seat on an overnight flight from the U.S., you’d kill for a few hours sleep. But you know you have to stay awake for the next 12 hours; there’s no other way to beat jet lag.
The bus was warm and I might have dozed, but then, off to my right, I saw a building, all steel and glass, fifteen stories high, immaculately landscaped, basking in the morning sun. Atop the building was the GSK logo, followed by the company name: GlaxoSmithKline. I sat up in my seat.
So that’s their headquarters, I thought. I hadn’t realized GlaxoSmithKline was a British company. Like BP is a British company, but at the time, I didn’t know that either.
What I knew was that GlazoSmithKline was the company that marketed Avandia, a blockbuster new diabetes drug that had been on the market since 1999. By 2004, problems had begun to surface. Studies showed that type 2 diabetics who took Avandia were 25 times more likely to suffer heart attacks. The drug was suspected of causing other problems: weight gain, brittle bones, strokes, and kidney failure. There was even talk of cancer.
My husband’s doctor had put him on Avandia two years before. Because the drug was relatively new and under patent protection, it cost a lot of money. We were paying for it out of our pockets. Our insurance, the best we could buy, was terrible. It’s like that for people who are self-employed.
Because I didn’t like what I was reading about this very pricey drug, I set up a Google alert. Anytime Avandia made the news, Google sent a link to my Gmail account. I started getting those links several times a week. They were alarming. I printed some of the articles out, showed them to my husband, insisted he take them to his doctor. Ultimatedly, his doctor prescribed an older, safer, and more effective drug. We threw the Avandia in the trash.
I sat in the seat on that bus on my way into London, and there was that GlaxoSmithKline building, glaring at me, and my eyes were gritty from lack of sleep, and I wondered just how much of that building I’d paid for. In the eighteen months my husband had taken the drug, we’d spent thousand of dollars. The drug hadn’t helped his diabetes. He’d experienced weight gain, erratic morning blood sugars, and other problems. I wondered what other damage the drug might have done. I could only guess.
I spent five days in London, and another five in the countryside. When I came home I did some math: eighteen months, $200 a month. I wrote a letter to GSK asking them to send me a check for $3,600.
Several weeks later I got a letter from one of their staff doctors. They were very sorry my husband was diabetic. Their drug had helped thousands of people. Would I please tell them in detail what side effects my husband might have suffered.
My husband says I’m a suspicious person. But he also says, if he’s ever in a foxhole, and he has a choice of someone he’d like to have fighting beside him, he’d choose me.
I never answered the letter from GlaxoSmithKline, and they never sent me my check. Now, all these years later, the FDA has once again declined to take this nasty drug off the market. One of the doctors on the FDA board said he’d have voted to remove it, but he was afraid he’d be the only one. Another doctor has received over $6000 from GSK for speeches he’s given at medical conventions.
I’ve not been back to London, but I imagine gardeners are busy tending the flowers around that giant office building on the outskirts of the city. The lights are on, and the “suits” who work there are smiling. Avandia is still on the market.
Shame on you, FDA.