Drug Approved. Is Disease Real?
By ALEX BERENSON
Fibromyalgia is a real disease. Or so says Pfizer in a new television advertising campaign for Lyrica, the first medicine approved to treat the pain condition, whose very existence is questioned by some doctors.
For patient advocacy groups and doctors who specialize in fibromyalgia, the Lyrica approval is a milestone. They say they hope Lyrica and two other drugs that may be approved this year will legitimize fibromyalgia, just as Prozac brought depression into the mainstream.
But other doctors — including the one who wrote the 1990 paper that defined fibromyalgia but who has since changed his mind — say that the disease does not exist and that Lyrica and the other drugs will be taken by millions of people who do not need them.
As diagnosed, fibromyalgia primarily affects middle-aged women and is characterized by chronic, widespread pain of unknown origin. Many of its sufferers are afflicted by other similarly nebulous conditions, like irritable bowel syndrome.
Because fibromyalgia patients typically do not respond to conventional painkillers like aspirin, drug makers are focusing on medicines like Lyrica that affect the brain and the perception of pain.
Advocacy groups and doctors who treat fibromyalgia estimate that 2 to 4 percent of adult Americans, as many as 10 million people, suffer from the disorder.
Those figures are sharply disputed by those doctors who do not consider fibromyalgia a medically recognizable illness and who say that diagnosing the condition actually worsens suffering by causing patients to obsess over aches that other people simply tolerate. Further, they warn that Lyrica’s side effects, which include severe weight gain, dizziness and edema, are very real, even if fibromyalgia is not.
Despite the controversy, the American College of Rheumatology, the Food and Drug Administration and insurers recognize fibromyalgia as a diagnosable disease. And drug companies are aggressively pursuing fibromyalgia treatments, seeing the potential for a major new market.
Hoping to follow Pfizer’s lead, two other big drug companies, Eli Lilly and Forest Laboratories, have asked the F.D.A. to let them market drugs for fibromyalgia. Approval for both is likely later this year, analysts say.
Worldwide sales of Lyrica, which is also used to treat diabetic nerve pain and seizures and which received F.D.A. approval in June for fibromyalgia, reached $1.8 billion in 2007, up 50 percent from 2006. Analysts predict sales will rise an additional 30 percent this year, helped by consumer advertising.
In November, Pfizer began a television ad campaign for Lyrica that features a middle-aged woman who appears to be reading from her diary. “Today I struggled with my fibromyalgia; I had pain all over,” she says, before turning to the camera and adding, “Fibromyalgia is a real, widespread pain condition.”
Doctors who specialize in treating fibromyalgia say that the disorder is undertreated and that its sufferers have been stigmatized as chronic complainers. The new drugs will encourage doctors to treat fibromyalgia patients, said Dr. Dan Clauw, a professor of medicine at the University of Michigan who has consulted with Pfizer, Lilly and Forest.
“What’s going to happen with fibromyalgia is going to be the exact thing that happened to depression with Prozac,” Dr. Clauw said. “These are legitimate problems that need treatments.”
Dr. Clauw said that brain scans of people who have fibromyalgia reveal differences in the way they process pain, although the doctors acknowledge that they cannot determine who will report having fibromyalgia by looking at a scan.
Lynne Matallana, president of the National Fibromyalgia Association, a patients’ advocacy group that receives some of its financing from drug companies, said the new drugs would help people accept the existence of fibromyalgia. “The day that the F.D.A. approved a drug and we had a public service announcement, my pain became real to people,” Ms. Matallana said.
Ms. Matallana said she had suffered from fibromyalgia since 1993. At one point, the pain kept her bedridden for two years, she said. Today she still has pain, but a mix of drug and nondrug treatments — as well as support from her family and her desire to run the National Fibromyalgia Association — has enabled her to improve her health, she said. She declined to say whether she takes Lyrica.
“I just got to a point where I felt, I have pain but I’m going to have to figure out how to live with it,” she said. “I absolutely still have fibromyalgia.”
But doctors who are skeptical of fibromyalgia say vague complaints of chronic pain do not add up to a disease. No biological tests exist to diagnose fibromyalgia, and the condition cannot be linked to any environmental or biological causes.
The diagnosis of fibromyalgia itself worsens the condition by encouraging people ...full text