Category Archives: Cholesterol & Statins

You’re killing my patients (again)

Some of you may remember that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) ran two programs in 2013 about saturated fat and statins. The messages were that saturated fat does not cause heart disease, and statins have more side effects than were reported in the trials, and could do more harm than good in patients at low risk of heart disease.

Massive outrage ensued, at least in Australia, a faraway country of which we know little. However, the battle is important for us all. For it is about crushing free speech and stomping on any criticism of medical ‘experts.’ Which is a very dangerous thing indeed.

After internal investigation, ABC pulled both programs and apologized profusely. Even though they could find nothing wrong with the programme on saturated fat, and only one of seventeen objections was upheld. And this objection was, in my opinion, a relatively minor issue (see a previous blog on the matter).

Just to refresh your memory. Here is the only point in which the programs were felt to have misrepresented the facts, followed by my comment at the time.

‘The program’s treatment of use of statins in secondary prevention focused solely on mortality benefits in a way that reinforced the view that statins were overprescribed and their benefits exaggerated. The principal relevant perspective that statins have wider benefits for this group was not properly presented. This perspective was necessary to a fair understanding of the pros and cons of statin use in this group.’

My Comment: [Turning this into English. What the committee believe they found was that the second Catalyst program ‘Cholesterol drug war’ did not mention that statins have benefits on non-fatal outcomes e.g. non-fatal heart attack, and non-fatal stroke. By failing to emphasize this point it was judged that the program gave a misleading perspective on the overall benefits of statins (in secondary prevention).]

However, all of this was represented as follows:

ABC takes down Catalyst heart disease episodes after review criticism Controversial TV program on cholesterol-lowering statins found to have breached editorial standards.

‘Two episodes of the TV science program Catalyst will be removed from the ABC’s website after an internal review found the program had breached editorial standards on impartiality.

The controversial Catalyst program on statins and heart disease, The Heart of the Matter, was attacked by health experts even before it aired last year.

The presenter of ABC radio’s Health Report, Norman Swan, warned “people will die” as a result of the TV program’s messages about heart medications.

Swan, whose criticism of the program has been vindicated by the independent Audience and Consumer Affairs Unit report, had said the program made him “really angry” because it might affect Indigenous Australians, who are especially likely to suffer from high cholesterol.’ {P.S. Norman, indigenous Australians have lower cholesterol levels than the surrounding population}.

If this was all you had heard about the matter you would assume that ABC had done a very shoddy job, with sloppy and potentially dangerous reporting. Yet all of this ‘howling villagers with pitchforks’ attack was based on a single issue. It should be emphasised that, at no point did the programs suggest that anyone should stop taking a statin, or that statins should not be used in high risk patients.

But the vicious attacks did not stop here, oh no. Now we have a paper in the Medical Journal of Australia, reported yesterday, as follows:

Today, researchers from the University of Sydney and the Australian National University report on the impact of another Catalyst program. In October 2013, Catalyst broadcast a segment highly critical of statins, a class of drug used for lowering cholesterol.

The program questioned the link between cholesterol and heart disease, and suggested the benefit of statins in preventing cardiovascular disease was exaggerated.

There was extensive criticism of the program, including from the ABC’s own Norman Swan and the ABC later removed the episodes from the Catalyst website after an internal review found that the episodes had breached its impartiality standards.

The new report in the Medical Journal of Australia used Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme data of 191,000 people and found an immediate fall of some half a million fewer statins dispensed to patients in the eight months following the Catalyst broadcasts.

The authors wrote:

This translated to an estimated 60,897 fewer people taking statins over the eight months examined. If patients continue to avoid statins over the next five years, this could result in between 1,522 and 2,900 preventable, and potentially fatal, heart attacks and strokes.

One of the study authors, Associate Professor Sallie Pearson, Scientific Director of the Centre of Research Excellence in Medicines and Ageing at the University of Sydney, said:

What is particularly concerning is that this drop in use was seen in people who were at high risk of cardiovascular disease – for example, those who were also taking medications for diabetes. Heart attacks and strokes are the main killers of people with diabetes.

Statins are recommended for people at high risk of cardiovascular disease because they have been shown to be effective. Like all medications, they have risks and benefits and should only be used as recommended.

The study authors wrote:

Even though the observed effect was relatively small, the prevalence of statin use in Australia and their established efficacy means that a large number of people are affected, and may suffer unnecessary consequences.

Why would anyone have done such a study? The only possible reason is that it was a deliberate effort to destroy any possibility of anyone ever criticising statins again? The whole thing is appalling and disgraceful.

At no point (to restate this yet again,) did the programs suggest people at high risk (secondary prevention) of heart disease stop taking statins. Yet, as you can see, the main attacked focussed on the fact that there was a reduction in people taking statin, in those at high risk of heart disease. What nonsense. Yesterday I wrote the following in a comment on an Australian website ‘The Conversation.’1

Here is the kind of delicious irony we should all enjoy. To quote Sallie Pearson, one of the study authors. ‘What is particularly concerning is that this drop in use was seen in people who were at high risk of cardiovascular disease – for example, those who were also taking medications for diabetes.’

Oh my God, people with diabetes are giving up statins. Well, as statins increase the risk of diabetes by 46%* then it would not be surprising to find a significant number of people with diabetes giving up statins. After all, it would have been, in many cases, the statins that gave them the diabetes in the first place. So, giving up the statins would probably have ‘cured’ their diabetes. And as we all know, to quote Sallie Pearson again…’Heart attacks and strokes are the main killers of people with diabetes.’ Yes, indeed.

Pursue this line of argument for too long and madness shall surely follow.

*The use of statin treatment could increase risk of type 2 diabetes by 46%, as a result of decreases in insulin sensitivity and insulin secretion, according to researchers from the Institute of Clinical Medicine in University of Eastern Finland. http://www.pharmaceutical-journal.com/news-and-analysis/statins-increase-risk-of-type-2-diabetes-study-suggests/20068064.article

P.S. When it comes to statins, 75% stop taking them in the first year anyway. So the Catalyst programme would have been but a drop in a very large ocean. http://www.statinusage.com/Pages/key-findings-and-implications.aspx

P.P.S. As you will see, most people stop taking statins due to adverse drug effects which, according to the programmes critics, do not really exist.

1: https://theconversation.com/abcs-2013-catalyst-program-may-contribute-to-up-to-2-900-heart-attacks-and-strokes-43177

Statins and cancer

(Ho hum, not again)

A number of people have written to me pointing out an outbreak of mass hysteria in the UK press about statins protecting against cancer. I suspect this hysteria has been repeated around the world. Here are the headlines from the eponymous Daily Mail

Statins slash risk of death by cancer: They slow tumour growth

by up to 50% reveal major studies

Experts say there is ‘overwhelming’ evidence that statins can treat cancer

Study showed they cut death rates for bone cancer patients by 55 per cent

GPs should make patients aware of pills’ new benefits, researchers say

I have been aware of claims that statins protect against cancer for many years. They pop up on a pretty regular basis. I have tended to ignore them on the basis that, anyone who is stupid enough to believe such research, deserves all the statins they can get.

However, such is the overblown hype this time, that I feel the need to rouse myself from my slumber, and explain why this is just complete rubbish. I don’t need to read the original studies to do this. I have read enough of these over the years. I hope this does not sound too arrogant, but I will happily apologise if any single thing I write here proves to be wrong.

Not randomised controlled studies

The studies quoted will not have been randomised and controlled. By which I mean they did not take, say, forty thousand people and split them into two, randomised, groups. One group to take statins the other to take a placebo. Then wait, say, five years to see what difference there was.

These studies will have been observational. By which I mean you look at people taking statins and see what happens to them vs. people who do not take statins. Such studies can show associations between two variables. But they cannot prove causality. (They cannot provide ‘overwhelming’ evidence of anything either). This is basic science, page one, paragraph one.

Just to provide one example of this. In 1987 a major observational study showed that women taking HRT had a more than forty per cent reduction in heart disease. At which point it was recommended that women took HRT to protect themselves against heart disease. This was, in fact, written into the guidelines of the American College of Physicians. To fail to prescribe HRT was considered medical malpractice in the USA.1

Some years later came the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) study. The first randomised primary prevention trial to use HRT, and 17,000 women were involved.

‘Analysis of hazard ratios showed that after 5.2 years, there was a 29% increase in coronary heart disease risk, including an 18% risk of coronary heart disease mortality and a 32% increase risk of nonfatal myocardial infarction. There was a 20% increase in risk of fatal stroke and 50% increase in the risk of non fatal stroke in women assigned to HRT.2

So, a 42% reduction in heart disease turned into a 18% risk of dying of heart disease. In short, observational studies are hopelessly unreliable and often turn out to be complete nonsense. And there is a specific reason why I know these statins studies will be complete rubbish, which I will get to.

Relative not absolute risk

Once again, in these studies, we run into the distorting use of relative, not absolute risk. A fifty per cent reduction in risk can mean something, or nothing very much. It depends what the underlying risk was in the first place. In my book Doctoring Data I covered the use/misuse of relative risk in some depth.

Let us just say that if your underling risk of dying in the next five years is 50%, reducing that risk by 50% is a big deal. If the risk of dying in the next five years is 0.1%, then reducing that risk by 50% is five hundred times less of a big deal.

As for slowing tumour growth by 50%. Well, that could mean almost anything. Did you reduce tumour growth by 1%, 50% or some other number. And does reducing tumour growth actually reduce the risk of dying? Of course, you will always find some super rare cancer e.g. bone cancer, where death rates are cut by 55%.

I would imagine this meant about three deaths verses seven in bone cancer. Basically, however small the absolute figures can be to get to a relative risk reduction of 55%. I would guess there will be no statistical significance figure attached to this reduction. Many questions, almost none of them well be answered, you will find.

The elephant in the room (raised cholesterol protects against cancer)

Here, however, is the big issue. People with higher cholesterol levels are far less likely to die of cancer. Add this to the fact that people with higher cholesterol levels are far more likely be prescribed statins, and you start off with the most gigantic built in bias that it is possible to find.

In 1992 (before statins were being prescribed to more than a select few) a conference was held to look at low blood cholesterol and associations with mortality3. Going back this far in time is important. After this, statin prescribing makes it very difficult to disentangle those with naturally low, or high, cholesterol levels vs. those who were taking statins.

All the major studies of the time were reviewed, with nearly one million participants. As you can see from my little graph, reproduced from the figures in the paper, as cholesterol levels rise, the risk of cancer falls. For women, if your cholesterol level is below four, the risk of dying of cancer is 38% higher than if your cholesterol level is above 6.2mmol/l. In men we are looking at a 27% greater risk with low cholesterol levels. {See chart)

CL-vs-CR

Thus any observational study on lowering cholesterol with statins starts off with a massive inbuilt bias in the two populations. You are looking at one group of people who have a much lower risk of cancer to start with, then giving them statins, then declaring that statins protect against cancer….. just the most absolute unscientific codswallop.

As final warning. Be careful about lowering cholesterol too far. A very large Japanese study (that you will never have heard of, because it was not very supportive of statins) looked at prescribing statins to over forty seven thousand people over six years. As they found:

‘The patients with an exceptionally low TC (total cholesterol) concentration, the so-called ‘hyper-responders’ to simvastatin, had a higher relative risk of death from malignancy than in the other patient groups.’4

In fact, the rate of death from cancer in those whose cholesterol fell the most dramatically was increased by three hundred and thirty per cent (relative risk, apologies for doing this, but I do not know the absolute risk). The authors added this warning:

‘Further analysis is necessary to elucidate why the hyper-responders had an increased risk of death; their baseline characteristics will be described and discussed in detail in the future. Nevertheless, the health of patients who show a remarkable decrease in TC or LDL-C concentration with low-dose statin therapy should be monitored closely.’

Can I return to my slumbers on this issue now?

 

References

1: American College of Phyisicians. Guidelines for Counselling Post-Menopausal Women about Preventative Hormone Therapy. Ann Intern Med. 117:1038-41. (1992)

2: Writing group for the Women’s Health Initiative Investigators. ‘Risks and benefits of oestrogen plus progestin in healthy postmenopausal women. Principal results from the Women’s Health Initiative Randomized controlled Trials’ JAMA (2002)

3: Jabobs et al: Conference on Low Blood Cholesterol and Mortality: Circulation Vol 86, No 3 September 1992

4: Matsuzaki M et al: Large Scale Cohort Study of the Relationship Between Serum Cholesterol Concentration and Coronary Events With Low-Dose Simvastatin Therapy in Japanese Patients With Hypercholesterolemia Primary Prevention Cohort Study of the Japan Lipid Intervention Trial (J-LIT). Circ J 2002; 66: 1087 –1095

Hoorah

The article below was just sent to me be a fellow GP, who shares my concerns about the prescribing of statins to everyone with a pulse. In fact it was he (I am being coy about naming him here) who led the protest against the over-prescribing of statins within the Royal College of General Practice (RCGP). He also led the protest within the General Practice Committee (GPC), which is the part of the British Medical Association (BMA) that negotiates on behalf of General Practitioners. Yes, the structures of medical politics are byzantine indeed.

Anyway, for those who believe that doctors are unthinking drones who stare at computer screens and merely follow the guidelines they see there, tonight you may raise a glass of beer, or wine, or even whisky, to them.

Short warning. Before you read this article, which appeared in PULSE magazine (the most widely read medical magazine for UK GPs) I feel I need to quickly flick through the acronyms.

  • RCGP = Royal College of General Practitioners
  • NICE = the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (they look at all the evidence in a medical area, then create the guidelines for treatment that doctors are commanded to follow)
  • QOF = Quality Outcome Framework. A system of payments designed to incentivise General Practitioners to meet various targets e.g. lower blood pressure, measure weight, put people on statins.
  • QRISK = A risk calculator, designed to determine your risk of having a heart attack or stroke in the next five or ten years.

‘The RCGP and the GPC have rejected NICE’s plan to introduce QOF indicators that would see practices rewarded for prescribing statins to patients with a QRISK score above 10%, warning the move threatened the ‘credibility of QOF’.

The move comes as NICE advisors on QOF are due to meet early next week to discuss potential new indicators – including two that would reward practices for prescribing statins to patients newly diagnosed with diabetes or hypertension at a 10% estimated 10-year cardiovascular risk level – which will be up for negotiation for next year’s contract if approved.

The GPC said that it was ‘vital for the credibility of QOF’ that indicators have a robust evidence base, make significant difference to patients and are backed for the profession, adding that these proposals ‘fail on all these counts’.

The RCGP warned that the proposals risked ‘the loss of professional confidence in the healthcare targets they are being asked to meet’.

NICE launched the consultation on proposed new QOF indicators earlier in the year, which included another potential new indicator would pay practices to set up a register of patients with a 10-year risk of 10% or higher, alongside the hypertension and diabetes indicators.

The proposals were made in order to reflect updated NICE lipid modification guidelines, which lowered the 10-year cardiovascular risk threshold at which GPs prescribe interventions, including statin therapy, from 20% to 10%.

This was despite opposition from GP leaders and other leading clinicians concerned about the potential for over-medicalisation of healthy people and diversion of resources away from the sick onto the ‘worried well’.1

‘Get in!’ as they say. I am, to put it mildly, delighted.

1:         http://www.pulsetoday.co.uk/your-practice/qof/gp-leaders-unite-to-reject-nice-proposal-to-put-10-statin-threshold-in-the-qof/20010096.article#.VWh-r8-6eUk

The dog that did not bark in the night

Some of you may have noticed this study, others may not. The amazing ‘wonderdrug’ trial proving that cholesterol lowering drugs have unparalleled benefits on preventing stroke. Here is just one headline from the Daily Express. A major newspaper in the UK.

Statins slash stroke risk by 30 per cent: Millions more should be given drug, say experts

New research has found that the wonderdrugs – which include statins and fibrates – can slash the risk of suffering a stroke by a third in the elderly. And experts now say there is clear evidence that even among the over-75s – a group not routinely prescribed statins – people can benefit from the life-saving drugs.

It is yet more evidence that the cholesterol-lowering drugs are lifesavers and that their benefits outweigh the potential side effects. Lead researcher Christophe Tzourio, Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Bordeaux and Inserm, said: “A one third reduction in stroke risk, if confirmed, could have an important effect on public health.”1

And so on and so forth.

Colleagues of mine love to wave articles like this at me with a triumphant smirk. ‘Seems you’re wrong about cholesterol lowering after all.’ What do you say to that? Eh..’ I usually ask them if they actually read the study. ‘Primary prevention with lipid lowering drugs and long term risk of vascular events in older people: population based cohort study.’2 I ask them this question, but I know that they’ve not. I find it rare to come across a doctor who would ever deign do such a thing as read a scientific paper.

However, when studies like this come out, I do feel the need to raise my enthusiasm to a sufficient level to have a peek at the paper. In this case it was rather easy. This paper was published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), and I get it delivered to me every week by post. What a quaint thing, actual physical reading material.

My first problem, before I even started reading this study, is that I knew beforehand that a raised cholesterol level is not a risk factor for stroke. Never has been, not anywhere, not in any study I have read. Whilst you can find studies claiming that a raised cholesterol level (LDL) is a risk factor for heart disease [ and you can find others that show the opposite], I have yet to find any study demonstrating any association between raised cholesterol and stroke.

Here, for example, is a short extract from one massive study, the biggest, which looked at four hundred and fifty thousand people over seven million years of observation. It was published in the Lancet:

‘The associations of blood cholesterol and diastolic blood pressure with subsequent stroke rates were investigated by review of 45 prospective observational cohorts involving 450 000 individuals with 5-30 years of follow-up (mean 16 years, total 7·3 million person-years of observation), during which 13 397 participants were recorded as having had a stroke.

Most of these were fatal strokes in studies that recorded only mortality and not incidence, but about one-quarter were from studies that recorded both fatal and non-fatal strokes. After standardisation for age, there was no association between blood cholesterol and stroke except, perhaps, in those under 45 years of age when screened. This lack of association was not influenced by adjustment for sex, diastolic blood pressure, history of coronary heart disease, or ethnicity (Asian or non-Asian).3 [My bold].

Now, if you are unable to find an association between cholesterol levels and stroke in seven point three million years of observation then, you know what, it just ain’t there. In fact, I challenge anyone reading this blog to provide any evidence that cholesterol levels are associated with overall stroke risk. Gulp, that makes me hostage to fortune.

This is why stroke associations struggle when they talk about cholesterol and stroke. They seem desperate to say that raised cholesterol levels cause stroke, but just can’t. Here is how the National Stroke Association fudges the issue.

‘High cholesterol may raise your risk for stroke by increasing your risk for heart disease, a stroke risk factor.4

Whilst it is, of course, true that having heart disease does increase your risk of stroke, and vice-versa, the rest of this statement reveals a yawning gap in logic [For the sake of this argument, let us assume it is true that a raised cholesterol causes heart disease].

A (raised cholesterol) → B (heart disease) →C (Stroke)

A does not → C

Question. If A does not lead to C, how does A lead to B, then leading to C? I shall ask for this to become a question in the Oxford and Harvard entrance exams.

[BTW, if you can work this one out, then please feel free to let me know how it works. Exactly.]

Anyway. We find a study demonstrating that two cholesterol lowering drugs, in this case statins and fibrates, significantly reduce the risk of stroke. But a raised cholesterol level is not a risk factor for stroke. Which means that there can be no possibility that the benefit seen can have been due to cholesterol lowering? That, my friends, is simple logic. No need for Oxford and Harvard to get involved at all. This could be discussed on entrance to kindergarten.

Now, just to add to my short analysis this study I would like to draw your attention to something not remarked upon by the popular press at all. However, I thought that you may find it interesting. It was the following statement from the paper:

‘We found no association between lipid lowering drug use and coronary heart disease (hazard ratio 1.12, 0.90 to 1.40).’ [For those who hate figures/confidence intervals, sorry, I left them in for those who like them].

This was the dog that did not bark in the night.

In summary, here we have a study showing that cholesterol lowering reduced the risk of stroke, when a raised cholesterol level is not a risk factor for stroke. On the other hand, it failed to show any benefit on reducing the risk of heart disease. Some would consider that a study such as this raises more questions than answers. However, with wearisome inevitability, it has been twisted around to provide further proof that everyone should be taking statins. Sigh.

1:              http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/578174/Statins-stroke-experts

2:              Alperovitch et al: BMJ 25 May 2015 pp12.

3:              Cholesterol, diastolic blood pressure, and stroke: 13 000 strokes in 450 000 people in 45 prospective cohorts The Lancet Volume 346, Issues 8991–8992, 30 December 1995, Pages 1647–1653

4:              http://www.stroke.org/stroke-resources/resource-library/cholesterol-and-stroke

Hats off to the Japanese

(Raised cholesterol is good for you)

For many years I have told anyone who will listen that, if you have a high cholesterol level, you will live longer. Equally, if you have a low cholesterol level, you will die younger. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a fact. The older you become the more beneficial it is to have a high cholesterol level.

This fact has become more difficult to demonstrate recently as so many people have been put on statins that the association between cholesterol levels and mortality has been twisted, bent and pumelled into the weirdest shapes imaginable. However, Japan, provides some very interesting data. Japan has always had a very low rate of heart disease, an enviable life expectancy, and… generally low cholesterol levels. Aha!, surely this means that low cholesterol levels are good for you? Well….

Well, here is the introduction to a one hundred and sixteen page review of the cholesterol hypothesis published in the Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism. It was published on April 30th 2015. I have just finished reading it for the first time. I thought I would share the Introduction, in full:

High cholesterol levels are recognized as a major cause of atherosclerosis. However, for more than half a century some have challenged this notion. But which side is correct, and why can’t we come to a definitive conclusion after all this time and with more and more scientific data available? We believe the answer is very simple: for the side defending this so-called cholesterol theory, the amount of money at stake is too much to lose the fight.

The issue of cholesterol is one of the biggest issues in medicine where the law of economy governs. Moreover, advocates of the theory take the notion to be a simple, irrefutable ‘fact’ and self-explanatory. They may well think that those who argue against the cholesterol theory—actually, the cholesterol ‘hypothesis’— are mere eccentrics.

We, as those on the side opposing the hypothesis, understand their argument very well. Indeed, the first author of this supplementary issue (TH) had been a very strong believer and advocate of the cholesterol hypothesis up until a couple of years after the Scandinavian Simvastatin Survival Study (4S) reported the benefits of statin therapy in The Lancet in 1994. To be honest with the readers, he used to persuade people with high cholesterol levels to take statins. He even gave a talk or two to general physicians promoting the benefits of statins. Terrible, unforgivable mistakes given what we came to know and clearly know now.

In this supplementary issue, we explore the background to the cholesterol hypothesis utilizing data obtained mainly from Japan—the country where anti-cholesterol theory campaigns can be conducted more easily than in any other countries. But why is this? Is it because the Japanese researchers defending the hypothesis receive less support from pharmaceutical companies than researchers overseas do? Not at all. Because Japanese researchers are indolent and weak? No, of course not. Because the Japanese public is skeptical about the benefits of medical therapy? No, they generally accept everything physicians say; unfortunately, this is also complicated by the fact that physicians don’t have enough time to study the cholesterol issue by themselves, leaving them simply to accept the information provided by the pharmaceutical industry.

Reading through this supplementary issue, it will become clear why Japan can be the starting point for the anti-cholesterol theory campaign. The relationship between all-cause mortality and serum cholesterol levels in Japan is a very interesting one: mortality actually goes down with higher total or low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels, as reported by most Japanese epidemiological studies of the general population. This relationship cannot be observed as easily in other countries, except in elderly populations where the same relationship exists worldwide.

The mortality from coronary heart disease in Japan has accounted for around just 7% of all cause mortality for decades; a much lower rate than seen in Western countries. The theory that the lower the cholesterol levels are, the better is completely wrong in the case of Japan—in fact, the exact opposite is true. Because Japan is unique in terms of cholesterol-related phenomena, it is easy to find flaws in the cholesterol hypothesis.

Based on data from Japan, we propose a new direction in the use of cholesterol medications for global health promotion; namely, recognizing that cholesterol is a negative risk factor for all-cause mortality and re-examining our use of cholesterol medications accordingly. This, we believe, marks the starting point of a paradigm shift in not only how we understand the role cholesterol plays in health, but also how we provide cholesterol treatment.

The guidelines for cholesterol are thus another area of great importance. Indeed, the major portion of this supplementary issue (from Chapter 4 onward) is given over to our detailed examination and critique of guidelines published by the Japan Atherosclerosis Society. We dedicate a large portion of this work to these guidelines because they are generally held in high regard in Japan, and the country’s public health administration mechanism complies with them without question. Physicians, too, tend to simply obey the guidelines; their workloads often don’t allow them to explore the issue rigorously enough to learn the background truth and they are afraid of litigation if they don’t follow the guidelines in daily practice.

These chapters clearly describe some of the flaws in the guidelines—flaws which are so serious that it becomes clear that times must change and the guidelines must be updated. Our purpose in writing this supplementary issue is to help everyone understand the issue of cholesterol better than before, and we hope that we lay out the case for why a paradigm shift in cholesterol treatment is needed, and sooner rather than later. We would like to stress in closing that we have received no funding in support of writing or publishing this supplementary issue and our conflicts of interest statements are given in full at the end.

Here is the introduction to the chapter on cholesterol and mortality:

All-cause mortality is the most appropriate outcome to use when investigating risk factors for life threatening disease. Section 1 discusses all-cause mortality according to cholesterol levels, as determined by large epidemiological studies in Japan. Overall, an inverse trend is found between all-cause mortality and total (or low density lipoprotein [LDL]) cholesterol levels: mortality is highest in the lowest cholesterol group without exception. If limited to elderly people, this trend is universal. As discussed in Section 2, elderly people with the highest cholesterol levels have the highest survival rates irrespective of where they live in the world.

I don’t think that I really need to say anything else, other than to repeat this fact. If you have a high cholesterol (LDL) level, you will live longer. This is especially true of the elderly.

Ann Nutr Metab 2015;66(suppl 4):1–116 DOI: 10.1159/000381654

Dead men don’t bleed

I think I have become a connoisseur of scientific double-think. Swilling the most ridiculous statements around my glass with relish, and enjoying the finest vintages. Last week, whilst I was on holiday, someone sent me a piece about statins and coronary artery calcification. I’m not sure what such people think I do on my holidays – but reading medical reports is not one of them.

However, the moment I read this article, it immediately brought to mind a story about a patient who had a fixed delusion that he was dead. The psychiatrist he was seeing had repeatedly tried, and failed, to get this patient to admit that he was deluded. One day a conversation took place

Psychiatrist:    ‘Would you accept that dead people do not bleed?’

Patient:            ‘Of course.’

Psychiatrist:    Pulling needle from pocket. ‘Would you allow me to prick your thumb to see if you do bleed?’

Patient:            ‘Go ahead doc, nothing will happen.’

Psychiatrist:    Pricks the thumb of the patient, which then bleeds. ‘Aha!’

Patient:          Looks down with interest. ‘Well what do you know, I guess dead people do bleed after all.’

For many years now it has become, almost a known fact, that a highly significant sign of Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) is calcification of the coronary arteries. The most widely accepted thinking is that calcification represents the final stage of atherosclerotic plaque development. It is a clear indication that your arteries have been developing atherosclerotic plaques over the years. Or, to quote Medscape on the issue:

‘First and foremost, calcium is a marker for a diseased artery1.’

The same article expands on this simple quote: “Coronary calcium is part of the development of atherosclerosis; …it occurs exclusively in atherosclerotic arteries and is absent in the normal vessel wall.” Simply put, the presence of calcification in the epicardial coronary arteries indicates that the patient has coronary atherosclerosis.’

This could not be more clear, and has been almost unquestioned. Lots of calcium in your arteries means lots of arterial disease. More = bad. Less = good. Sorry to labour the point, but I am doing it for a reason.

Sherlock:         ‘So, my dear Watson. If we find that one of our treatments for heart disease is increasing the amount of calcification in the arteries, it would seem strange. Would it not?’

Watson:           ‘Indeed.’

Sherlock:         ‘And what, pray, does this make you think?’

Watson:           ‘I’m not entirely sure that I know what you are getting at?’

Sherlock:         ‘Think my dear Watson. Think.’

Watson:           ‘Our ideas about heart disease are wrong?’

Sherlock:         ‘Precisely.’

Statins, as we know, reduce the LDL/cholesterol level in the bloodstream. They also reduce (albeit not by very much) the risk of dying of heart attacks – and strokes. The current thinking, as I am sure everyone knows, is that excess LDL/cholesterol in the blood causes atherosclerosis. Ergo, lowering the level will reduce the burden. If this model is correct then, as LDL/cholesterol levels go down, we should lower the risk of atherosclerosis… and therefore we should see less calcium in the arteries. I know, I am labouring the point again.

However – as I have known for some time – this is not what we see. If you take statins you will increase the amount of calcium in the arteries.

CLEVELAND, OH – ‘The results of a new study suggest that there is a paradoxical relationship between calcification of the coronary artery and atheroma volume among individuals treated with statin therapy. In the analysis, statins, specifically high-intensity statin therapy, actually promoted coronary calcification.2

So, there you have it. At this point, if you are a scientist, you have a few possible explanations that you could look at. (Assuming that this research is correct – and no-one seems to doubt that it is true). You could, for example, say that that statins do not work by lowering LDL/cholesterol, and therefore must provide benefits through another mechanism. How else could you reduce the risk of heart disease, whilst increasing the atherosclerotic burden?

However, if you have a fixed delusion, namely that raised LDL/cholesterol is the most important causal factor in heart disease, and that lowering it must be beneficial, you need to look down at your, now, bleeding thumb and switch the game through one hundred and eighty degrees.

So, what would you do? What explanation would you come up with?

Well, and here I paraphrase. Steven Nissen – one of the most powerful and inexhaustible supporters and promoters of LDL/cholesterol lowering – a man of great influence throughout the world of cardiology. This man looked down at his thumb and said.

‘I guess coronary artery calcification is a good thing after all.’

In truth his actual words were:

“We have some physicians—some, not a lot—advocating for serial calcium scans to determine whether or not patients are doing well,” he said. “If you give them a high-dose of a statin and their calcium goes up that might actually be a good thing. Instead of saying, ‘Oh my goodness, your coronary calcium is increasing,’ we might be able to tell patients, ‘Your coronary calcium is up, your plaques are stabilizing.’ “

Or, as George Orwell may have put it. ’Four legs good, two legs better.’ ‘The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

References

1:         http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/352189-overview

2:          http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/352189-overview#aw2aab6b3

The hydra

I was thinking about the astonishing resilience of the cholesterol hypothesis the other day – something I often do. As you may know the ‘authorities’ in the US have now decreed that cholesterol in the diet is no longer a dietary factor of concern, as it has no effect on cholesterol levels in the blood.

Well my, my, this was discovered sixty years ago by Ancel Keys. However, several decades later various US Departments seem to have noticed this astonishing fact. They have sprung into immediate action and proposed that cholesterol is removed from the guidelines – as a dietary substance to be avoided (well it hasn’t quite happened yet, but it will).

No doubt they will take about two hundred pages of verbose guff to state this, along with all the reasons why no-one was actually wrong, and no-one ever really said that cholesterol in the diet should be avoided in the first place blah blah de blah. I certainly would not expect that the words ‘we were wrong’ will be found anywhere in the document, at least not in that order.

Blimey though, sixty years to get rid of a recommendation with never a scrap of evidence to support it. Not a single scrap. Of course, cholesterol in the blood is still bad. At least bad cholesterol is still bad, whereas good cholesterol is still good. Even though neither thing is actually cholesterol at all. But why let science get in the way of a good scientific hypothesis.

Hydra, or blob.

I was thinking should I call this blog, the ‘hydra’ or the ‘blob’. Because, when it comes do the cholesterol/diet-heart, or the ‘whatever you now want to call it, because you can call it almost anything you like hypothesis’ we see both mechanisms, multiplication and growth/mutation.

From the hydra perspective, if you cut off the head, this hypothesis simply grows a couple more. We now know it is not cholesterol in the diet that is bad. But anyway that doesn’t matter, for another head grew years ago. It is the ‘saturated fat is bad head’. If you attack that, it is the ratio of saturated to polyunsaturated head that suddenly appears. And if you attack that, the monounsaturated head appears, or the odd-chain saturated fat head, or even chain, or short chain. Chop chop, more heads.

In the blood, it is not LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol that is the problem, it is the new head of the ratio of good to bad cholesterol. Or is it dyslipidaemia, or it is oxidised cholesterol, or particle numbers, or small dense ‘bad’ cholesterol, or light fluffy ‘good (and simultaneously) bad’ cholesterol. Chop, chop. OMG not more bloody heads.

However, there are also good reasons for calling the many headed cholesterol hypothesis the blob, as it just grows and grows bigger. Attack it with contradictory evidence and is also capable of engulfing it, using your evidence to grow bigger and stronger. ‘Run for your lives.’

The French have a high cholesterol diet, a high cholesterol level in the blood, and low rates of heart disease. ‘Ah yes, that it because they eat lightly cooked vegetables, eat lots of garlic and drink red wine.’ The blob, gentle readers shrugged, grew a few pseudopods and engulfed these contradictions, digesting them with a contented sigh.

Eventually the hypothesis became ‘multifactorial’ a state in which any attack on any part of it is doomed to fail amongst a forest of heads attached to a monstrous blancmange like organism. The cholesterol hypothesis has become so massive and shapeless that any attempt to attack it is doomed to failure. You will be simply turned to stone, or engulfed. It will be lot longer than another sixty years before this hypothesis will finally keel over and die – I fear.

After all, the fact that cholesterol in the diet has no effect on cholesterol levels in the blood has had not the slightest discernible effect on a hypothesis that began life as… the cholesterol hypothesis. Although I defy anyone to tell me what it has now become.

A humiliating climb down – or a Machiavellian move?

Some of you may have seen a headline in the Sunday Express Newspaper ‘Statin, new safety checks.’ The subheading was ‘Oxford professor who championed controversial drug to reassess evidence of side effects.’

Those of you who read this blog probably know that the professor in question is Sir Rory Collins. He, more than anyone, has championed the ever wider prescription of these drugs. He has also ruthlessly attacked anyone who dares make any criticism of them.

You may remember that last year he tried to get the BMJ to retract two articles claiming that statins had side effects (correctly called adverse effects, but I will call them side-effects to avoid confusion) of around 18 – 20%.

He stated that these articles were irresponsible, worse than Andrew Wakefield’s work on the MMR vaccine, and that thousands would die if they were scared off taking their statins by such articles. Ah yes, the old ‘thousands will die’ game. A game I have long since tired of.

Is this story ringing any bells yet? The truth was that both articles quoted a paper which stated that 17.4% of people suffered adverse effects. So, yes, a pedant would say that the 18 – 20% figure was wrong – although not very wrong. Certainly not worth a demand of instant retraction, and apology, which is a very drastic step indeed.

Anyway, below is a short description of the findings of an independent panel set up by Fiona Godlee, editor of the BMJ, regarding the Rory Collins attacks [This has appeared on my blog before]:

“As previously reported, Rory Collins, a prominent researcher and head of the Cholesterol Treatment Trialists’ (CTT) Collaboration, had demanded that The BMJ retract two articles that were highly critical of statins. Although The BMJ issued a correction for both papers for inaccurately citing an earlier publication and therefore overstating the incidence of adverse effects of statins, this response did not satisfy Collins. He repeatedly demanded that the journal issue a full retraction of the articles, prompting The BMJ’s editor-in-chief, Fiona Godlee, to convene an outside panel of experts to review the problem.

The report of the independent statins review panel exonerates The BMJ from wrong doing and said the controversial articles should not be retracted:

“The panel were unanimous in their decision that the two papers do not meet any of the criteria for retraction. The error did not compromise the principal arguments being made in either of the papers. These arguments involve interpretations of available evidence and were deemed to be within the range of reasonable opinion among those who are debating the appropriate use of statins.”

In fact, the panel was critical of Collins for refusing to submit a published response to the articles:

“The panel noted with concern that despite the Editor’s repeated requests that Rory Collins should put his criticisms in writing as a rapid response, a letter to the editor or as a stand-alone article, all his submissions were clearly marked ‘Not for Publication’. The panel considered this unlikely to promote open scientific dialogue in the tradition of the BMJ.””1

To provide a bit more context at this point, you should know that for a number of years, people have been trying to get Rory Collins to release the data he and his unit (the CTT), holds on statins. [The CTT was set up purely to get hold of and review all the data on statins, it has no other function].

He has stubbornly refused to let anyone see anything. He claims he signed non-disclosure contracts with pharmaceutical companies who send him the data, so he cannot allow anyone else access. Please remember that some of the trials he holds data on were done over thirty years ago, and the drugs are long off patent. So how the hell could any data still be ‘confidential’ or ‘commercially sensitive’ now?

[The concept that vital data on drug adverse effects can be considered confidential, and no-one is allowed to see it, is completely ridiculous anyway. But that is an argument for another day.]

Now, amazingly, after running the CTT for nearly twenty years, Collins claims that ‘he has not seen the full data on side-effects.’ In an e-mail to the Sunday Express he stated that ‘his team had assessed the effects of statins on heart disease and cancer but not other side effects such as muscle pain.

Let that statement percolate for a moment or two. Then try to make sense of it. So, they have got the data, but not bothered to look at it? Or they have not got it – which surely must be the case if he hasn’t even seen it. Give us a clue. Either way, Collins states he has not assessed it.

Despite this, he still managed a vicious attack on the BMJ for publishing articles, claiming statins had side effects of around 20%. This was an interesting stance to stake, as he now claims he has no idea what the rate of side effects are? In which case he should make a grovelling apology to Fiona Godlee immediately.

What is certain, and must be reiterated, is that Rory Collins has consistently refused to allow anyone to see the side effect data, or any other data, that that the CTT may, or may not, hold. See e-mail below from Professor Colin Baigent to the ABC producer MaryAnne Demasi (she was trying to get the CTT to confirm that they would not release data, Colin Baigent is deputy to Rory Collins)

From: colin.baigent@xxxxxxxxxxx

To: maryannedemasi@xxxxxxxxxxxx

Subject: RE: URGENT COMMENT NEEDED PLEASE: ABC TV AUSTRALIA

Date: Tue, 24 Sep 2013 17:02:23 +0000

Dear Maryanne

The CTT secretariat has agreement with the principal investigators of the trials and, in those instances where trial data were provided directly by the drug manufacturers, with the companies themselves, that individual trial data will not be released to third parties. Such an agreement was necessary in order that analyses of the totality of the available trial data could be conducted by the CTT Collaboration: without such an agreement the trial data could not have been brought together for systematic analysis. Such analysis has allowed the CTT Collaboration to conduct and report all of the analyses on efficacy and safety that have been sought directly or indirectly by others (eg by Dr Redberg in her papers on the efficacy and safety of statins in primary prevention, and in questions raised by the Cochrane Collaboration). Hence, the CTT Collaboration has made available findings that would not otherwise have emerged.

I would be very happy to ring you at whatever time is convenient for you in order to help you to understand our approach, and then address in writing any residual concerns. It would be a shame if we were not able to speak as this would be the most effective way of explaining things.

Please let me know where and some times when I can reach you, and I will endeavour to telephone.

Colin Baigent.

I put the word safety in bold in this copied e-mail. You will note that Professor Colin Baigent does not say that that the CTT do not have these data on safety. He just says that the CTT won’t let anyone else see any data.

If they do have it, why have they not done this critically important review before, as they have had much of the data for over twenty years. If they don’t have it, how exactly is Rory Collins going to review it – as he states he is going to? Sorry to keep repeating this point, but I think it is absolutely critical.

Picture the scene in a lovely oak panelled office in Oxford, the city of the dreaming spires….

Professor Collins:   ‘Hey guys, you’re just not going to believe this, but a researcher just found a big box in the airing cupboard, and guess what, it has all the safety data in it….phew.’

Professor Baigent:  ‘Ahem… Why that’s lucky Professor Collins, now we can do the safety review.’

Professor Collins:   ‘Ahem… Indeed, Professor Baigent, we can. So, let’s get cracking shall we?’

And lo it has come to pass that after all these years Professor Collins has deigned to look at the safety data. This review shall, in Collins own words ‘be challenging.’ But you know what really don’t think they should bother, because we all know exactly what they are going to find….

That they were right all along, statins have no side effects. Hoorah, pip, pip. Nothing to see here, now move along.

A.N.Other Researcher:       ‘Please sir, can anyone else see these data that you hold, to ensure that you are being completely open and honest?’

Professor Collins:               ‘Don’t be ridiculous, these data are completely confidential.’

At this point I feel that I should ask how much do you, gentle readers, believe you can trust a review by Collins, on the data that Collins holds, on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry. Data that no-one else can ever see. [And the data from clinical trials on side effects is totally inadequate anyway].

Were I to be given the task of finding someone to review the safety data on statins, Professor Sir Rory Collins would not be the first person I would ask. He might even be the last.

1: http://www.forbes.com/sites/larryhusten/2014/08/02/no-retraction-for-you-review-panel-exonerates-medical-journal-in-statin-kerfuffle/

P.S. Actually, he would be the last.

Catalyst crushed?

“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”
Winston Churchill

ABC takes down Catalyst heart disease episodes after review criticism

Controversial TV program on cholesterol-lowering statins found to have breached editorial standards1

And that, as the Guardian reported, seems to be pretty much that. Here is some of the accompanying text.

‘Two episodes of the TV science program Catalyst will be removed from the ABC’s website after an internal review found the program had breached editorial standards on impartiality.

The controversial Catalyst program on statins and heart disease, The Heart of the Matter, was attacked by health experts even before it aired last year.

The presenter of ABC radio’s Health Report, Norman Swan, warned “people will die” as a result of the TV program’s messages about heart medications.

Swan, whose criticism of the program has been vindicated by the independent Audience and Consumer Affairs Unit report, had said the program made him “really angry” because it might affect Indigenous Australians, who are especially likely to suffer from high cholesterol.’

If this was all you had heard about the matter you would assume that ABC had done a very shoddy job, with sloppy and potentially dangerous reporting. Well, this is all very interesting. However, if you were to criticise sloppy reporting you could start with the Guardian report itself.

To begin with there were two programs, covering different issues, one of which had nothing to do with statins at all. However, the Guardian headline suggests there were two episodes ‘on statins and heart disease’. Not true. The first episode discussed whether or not saturated fat consumption caused heart disease. This episode was called ‘dietary villains’. It had nothing whatsoever to do with statins. The internal review found that this episode contained no errors. (Yet still it is being taken down?)

The second mistake the Guardian made is to accept Norman Swan’s statement that Indigenous Australians are especially likely to ‘suffer from high cholesterol’. Well this is complete rubbish. In one of the very few studies to report cholesterol levels in this population, published in the BMJ, the average cholesterol levels were very low (around 4.4.mmo/l)2. Lower than in any Western country.

Really, dear Guardian reporter, you ought to check your facts before writing such stuff – as should Norman Swan. But hey, checking facts is very time consuming, I think you will find. Moving on, I should also point out that you cannot ‘suffer’ from high cholesterol as there is no level of cholesterol that causes any symptoms. Mind you, if it were possible to ‘suffer’ from high cholesterol then the Swiss, with an average cholesterol level of 6.4mmol/l, would be suffering mightily. [Instead of having an extremely low rate of heart disease.]

Blimey, a few short paragraphs, and this article is already full of cock-ups. Of course, if you decide to go through anything with a fine toothcomb you will be able to pick up all sorts of errors. Writing scientific stuff is not easy. There is always a choice between absolute factual accuracy and providing the broader picture.

There is another choice between which facts to include, and which to exclude. Because of these inevitable tensions, and difficulties, if you want to attack any study, article, TV program, you will always find some traction. Sure as eggs is eggs, any program criticising statins was bound to be attacked mercilessly. Dr Uffe Ravnskov, a long time statin critic, had his book burned live, on air, in a Finnish TV studio. Part of a highly scientific debate, no doubt.

As a disclosure of interest, I did help the programme’s producer, and presenter, Dr Maryanne Demasi with questions and background information whilst she was putting the Catalyst programs together. I tried to give her as much factual information as possible. The day after the programmes came out, I wrote her this e-mail on 31st October 2013:

Maryanne,

Just seen part II. Brilliant, well done…….. I feel a sense of pride being able, in a small way, to help you put this together.

I now hope that you are viciously attacked, because that means you have won. (And it also means that thincs has won). Be ready – I suspect the attacks have already started.

She wrote back on the 4th of November:

Malcolm

OMG!! I am getting attacked in the media. They’re out for blood!!

Where do I hide??!!

Since then, the attacks have been relentless, from many directions. Page after page of criticism from the National (Australian) Heart Foundation (NHF). Withering attacks by the likes of Norman Swan – who seems to have set himself up at the ultimate arbiter of science in Australia. Somehow or other. Despite the fact that he believes people ‘suffer’ from high cholesterol, and has no idea about risk factors for heart disease in Indigenous Australians.

These attacks were battered backwards and forwards until my brain began to overheat. I provided supportive information to counter the criticism. As did several others. Point after point was refuted. It became quite exhausting.

Eventually, it seems ABC effectively caved in and removed the programmes. Why, I am not sure. The judgements on the programmes were almost entirely supportive – with a single exception, which I shall get to. Here, for example, was the commentary on the first programme on the link between saturated fat and heart disease.

Accuracy and impartiality

Episode 1 – ‘Dietary Villains’

The role of dietary saturated fats in heart disease has been controversial since the theory was first postulated at the beginning of the twentieth century. Notwithstanding the lack of definitive proof, mainstream medical organisations such as the National Heart Foundation (NHF) believe there is enough good quality evidence to recommend a diet low in saturated and trans fats…

In our view, the program could have done a better job of teasing out the mainstream perspective to leave audiences better informed.

However, in our assessment this did not amount to a breach of the impartiality standard in the first episode because judgements about impartiality require a number of factors to be weighed. While there were problems with structure and tone:

1. The factual information in the program was accurately presented and the reporter has demonstrated that she diligently sought and considered a variety of views on the subject. No material inaccuracy has been demonstrated by any complainant.

2. The principal perspectives were presented.

3. Neither position was endorsed by the program.

4. Neither perspective was misrepresented.

5. The nature of the program necessitated that the unorthodox theory was given more time and explanation. The Code does not require that they receive equal time, nor that every facet of every argument is presented.

As an important aside, I find it fascinating that the committee accepted that there is no ‘definitive proof’ that saturated fats cause heart disease. Check.

Yet, in a complete rupture of logic, the report stated that the ‘National Heart Foundation believe there is enough good quality evidence to recommend a diet low in saturated and trans-fats.’

Well, if there is enough good quality evidence, there must be, by definition, definitive proof. Either one statement is correct, or the other. They cannot both be, as they are mutually contradictory. This I am afraid is the level of thinking that goes on here. As expected, there is no criticism of the National (Australian) Heart Foundation for recommending a diet for which where is no ‘definitive proof.’ ‘It’s okay, they believe there is enough good quality evidence, and they are good chaps. So that is good enough for me.’

This is the usual kowtowing to the experts. If the roles had been reversed, Catalyst would have been crucified for promoting dietary advice based on nothing at all. Yet, the NHF are completely let off the hook with this pathetic statement.

‘Notwithstanding the lack of definitive proof, mainstream medical organisations such as the National Heart Foundation (NHF) believe there is enough good quality evidence to recommend a diet low in saturated and trans fats.’

Hang your heads guys. What is sauce for the goose should also be sauce for the gander.

And what of other ‘complaints.’ Here is another judgement, from this very, very, long document:

Did the program incorrectly state that it had sought comment from Merck Sharp & Dohme?

Complaint

Catalyst reported that it sought comment from MSD. MSD says that no contact was made.

Assessment

Catalyst has provided emails demonstrating that it approached MSD for responses to a number of detailed questions. MSD replied that it would not comment on the specific questions and stated only that:

‘MSD is committed to ethical research and abides by the principals of good clinical practices. All clinical trials and their protocols undergo review by hospital ethics committees.’

We are satisfied that Catalyst contacted MSD for comment and they declined to provide specific responses to allegations.

Conclusion – No breach of section 2.1.

Basically, MSD lied. They complained that no-one had sought any comment from them. It turned out this was nonsense, they were simply telling porkies. Any criticism of the company? No.

Here is another of the complaints:

Undue favouring of the perspective that saturated fats do not cause heart disease by raising cholesterol – part I – Code of Practice sections 2.2 and 4.5

Complaint

The hypothesis that eating saturated fats can increase cholesterol levels which in turn can cause heart attacks is widely accepted by the medical community and is the basis for most official dietary advice. Some medical researchers and physicians believe the hypothesis is flawed – Catalyst presented and examined their criticisms.

Complaints, including from the National Heart Foundation, allege the analysis lacked balance and omitted critical evidence…..

Assessment

We are satisfied on the basis of our review that the program’s scepticism towards the diet-heart hypothesis was not unjustified and its presentation of an alternative approach did not amount to an undue favouring of that approach.

Conclusion – No breach of section 4.5, no breach of 2.1

Are you getting some sense of what happened here? In point after point, it turns out that the Catalyst programmes had not, in any way, got anything wrong. Nothing, zip, nada. If you are so inclined, you can read the whole report3. To save you the trouble I have pulled out all the complaints, and added in the conclusions in as concise appendix as I can manage. [There is also a short appendix to make it clear what the Codes of Practice mean].

COMPLAINTS

[There were a total of twelve separate complaints, looking at seventeen possible breaches of editorial standards]

1: Ancel Keys’ population studies were misrepresented – Part I – Code of Practice section 2.2

Conclusion – No breach of section 2.2

2: Mediterranean Diet & The Lyon Diet Heart study – Part I – Code of Practice section 2.2 (Did the program accurately describe the Lyon Diet Heart study?)

Conclusion – No breach of 2.2

3: Misrepresentation of the composition of margarine in Australia – Part I – Code of Practice sections 2.1 & 2.2

Conclusion – No breach of section 2.2

4: Inaccurate description of the structure of polyunsaturated and saturated fats – Part I – Code of Practice section 2.1

Conclusion – No breach of section 2.1

5: Misrepresentation of the National Heart Foundation & Dr Grenfell – Part I – Code of Practice section 2.2

Conclusion – No breach of section 2.2.

6: Undue favouring of the perspective that saturated fats do not cause heart disease by raising cholesterol – part I – Code of Practice sections 2.2 and 4.5

Conclusion – No breach of section 4.5, no breach of 2.1

7: Misrepresentation of the 4S trial data – Part II – Code of Practice section 2.2

Conclusion – No breach of section 2.1 or 2.2

8: Merck Sharp & Dohme (MSD) – Part II – Code of Practice section 2.1 (Did the program incorrectly state that it had sought comment from Merck Sharp & Dohme?)

Conclusion – No breach of section 2.1.

9: Unfair characterisation of Australia’s medicines industry – Part II – Code of Practice sections 2.1 & 4.5

Conclusion – No breach of section 2.1 or 4.5.

  1. Failure to provide material context by not disclosing the commercial interests of some of the experts featured – Parts I & II – Code of Practice section 2.2

Conclusion – No breach of section 2.2.

  1. Failure to provide material context in relation to use of statins and undue favouring of view that statins do more harm than good – Part II – Code of Practice 2.2, 4.5 and 7.6

Did the program unduly favour an anti-statin viewpoint in its presentation of the evidence for the benefits and harms of statins?

Conclusion – Breach 4.5; No breach 2.2; No breach 7.6 (4.5 Do not unduly favour one perspective over another.)

  1. The program falsely claimed that the National Heart Foundation had ‘signed off’ on Catalyst’s evidence (PM 31/10/13) – Code of Practice sections 2.2 & 4.4

Conclusion – corrective action required, no breach 4.4

Twelve complaints about seventeen possible breaches of conduct, one upheld (I don’t think I have ever written anything that accurate in my life). There was another part of the report where the judgment is so weird that I cannot understand it. I defy anyone else to understand it either. You can read the whole report if you wish, and see what you think.

It seems to be saying that stratifying risk in primary prevention of heart disease is something that is contentious, but a lot of doctors believe in it, so it should have been mentioned. Something with no evidence to support it, that happens to be believed in by a number of doctors, should be presented as what….the truth? That bit is bonkers. It seems they thought they should say something, but descended into gibberish.

When you get down to it, the judgement is that there was a single breach. Represented thus:

‘The program’s treatment of use of statins in secondary prevention focused solely on mortality benefits in a way that reinforced the view that statins were overprescribed and their benefits exaggerated. The principal relevant perspective that statins have wider benefits for this group was not properly presented. This perspective was necessary to a fair understanding of the pros and cons of statin use in this group.’

Turning this into English. What the committee believe they found was the second Catalyst program ‘Cholesterol drug war’ did not mention that statins have benefits on non-fatal outcomes e.g. non-fatal heart attack, and non-fatal stroke. By failing to mention this point it was judged that the program gave a misleading perspective on the overall benefits of statins (in secondary prevention).

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is that. Perhaps not quite the crushing indictment you thought. Now, you must remember that this committee was starting from scratch, knowing bugger all about the area of statins and heart disease. Given this, they didn’t do too badly. But on the point about non-fatal strokes and non-fatal heart attacks they failed to spot the Elephant in the room. An Elephant that I need to describe to you.

Pharmaceutical companies hide data

The elephant in the room is that, when it comes to data on statins (and most other drugs), we are completely reliant on pharmaceutical companies to provide it. Increasing attempts have been made to get them to release all the data they have, but this has proven virtually impossible. Recently, we have seen a battle over the Roche drug Tamiflu:

‘The British Medical Journal (BMJ) has alleged that pharmaceutical giant Roche is deliberately hiding clinical trial data about the efficacy of oseltamivir (Tamiflu) in patients with influenza. The journal says global stockpiling and routine use of the drug are not supported by solid evidence and alleges that Roche concealed neurological and psychiatric adverse events associated with the neuraminidase inhibitor drug.

In an open letter from Fiona Godlee, MD, editor-in-chief of BMJ, to Professor John Bell, FRS, HonFREng, PMedSci, Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University in the United Kingdom and a Roche board member, published online October 29, Dr. Godlee reminds Bell of concerns that were initially voiced in 2009 about the reliability of Tamiflu research.

At that time, BMJ published an updated Cochrane review of neuraminidase inhibitors in healthy adults. That study “took the view that, since eight of the 10 [randomized controlled trials] on which effectiveness claims were based, were never published, and because the only two that had been published were funded by Roche and authored by Roche employees and Roche-paid external experts, the evidence could not be relied upon,” Dr. Godlee writes.’ [From medline, needs registration to view]

To quote the Cochrane collaboration on this matter:

“Patients around the world are being harmed because clinical decisions on their health care are skewed by the absence of clinical trials data,” said Mark Wilson, CEO of The Cochrane Collaboration, in announcing this new partnership. “For 20 years The Cochrane Collaboration has been working to give clinicians, researchers and patients the best possible evidence-based information to help them make informed decisions, and it is a scandal that we still do not have access to all trials data so that we can be confident in our conclusions…”4

Many people find it difficult to believe that companies just hide the data. But they did, and do, and shall do into the future, I would imagine. The 4S study, the single most positive study on statins ever done, by a long way, is more than slightly worrying in this respect. To quote from a blog by Dr Walter Ferneyhough, discussing the 4S study:

‘Did I mention the study bias. Well, it was funded by Merck (the pharmaceutical responsible for simvastatin (a.k.a. Zocor)), was monitored by the Scandinavian subsidiaries of Merck, and the data analysis was performed by Merck. A financial disclosure (conflicts of interest) of the researchers were not given, which is odd, since most studies provide this information.’5

If you believe that there is no possibility that the industry might present biased data, or fail to provide data that is not positive about their products, then you can sleep soundly in your bed…..you poor deluded fool. The reality is that negative studies are not published. Even when a study is positive the ‘raw’ data are held by the pharmaceutical companies. They release what they like, and keep secret what they like. Perfectly legal, so I am reliably informed.

When it comes to statins, this is highly significant when it comes to the issue of Serious Adverse Event (SEA) data. To explain this in a bit more detail, because the terminology here is confusing.

Drugs can cause adverse effects e.g. flushing, pain, headaches. These are known as drug related adverse effects. They are commonly called side effects, but this is inaccurate. A side effect can be positive, or negative.

On the other hand there are Serious Adverse Events (SAEs). SAEs include deaths. They also include nasty things such as a non-fatal MI, or a non-fatal stroke. Things that could be prevented by a statin. So that is good news for statins. However, an SAE could also be an episode of Rhabdomyolysis, or liver damage requiring hospitalisation, or Transient Global Amnesia, or tendon rupture. These could be caused by the statin, and would therefore be bad news for statins.

As you can see, after mortality, SAEs are the next best measure of how beneficial, or harmful, a product might be. Whilst pharmaceutical companies are delighted for us to have the data on positive SAEs, they are completely silent on the data on negative SAEs. Here is what the Cochrane collaboration first had to say on the matter, after they tried to get hold of the data from the statin trials:

Are SAEs reported in the major lipid-lowering trials?

SAE data were sought in the major placebo-controlled trials published up to September, 2001 using statins (5 trials)3-7 or fibrates (5 trials).8-12 Remarkably, only one study, the AFCAPS trial,3 reported total % SAEs in the treatment and placebo groups. In this study, lovastatin was compared with placebo in patients without cardiovascular disease (primary prevention). Similar total % SAEs were reported for the lovastatin, 34.2%, and placebo groups, 34.1% (RR = 1.0 [0.94-1.07]). What this indicates is that the 1.4% absolute risk reduction in total MI or CV death (see Table Letter #27) has been negated by an absolute risk increase in other SAEs. No information is provided as to what these other SAEs might be. The only other trial that reported anything approximating SAEs was the coronary drug project (CDP), a secondary prevention trial. This trial reported the percentage of patients ever hospitalized at 5 years: 55.1% for clofibrate and 52.4% for placebo (RR = 1.05 [0.99-1.12]).

Later on, they had this to say:

‘How can CHD (Coronary Heart Disease) SAEs decrease, but not total SAEs?

All CHD events are SAEs and are counted in both categories. Therefore a reduction in major CHD SAEs should be reflected in a reduction in total SAEs. The fact that it is not suggests that other SAEs are increased by statins negating the reduction in CHD SAEs in this population. A limitation of our analysis is that we could not get total SAE data from all the included RCTs. However, we are confident that the data from the 6 missing RCTs would not change the results, because they represent only 41.2% of the total population and include ALLHAT-LLT10, where one would not expect a reduction in total SAEs; in that trial there was no effect on mortality or cardiovascular SAEs.6

Yes, these reports from the Cochrane collaboration are getting a bit old now. But so are the placebo controlled statin trials, the ones that are used to support all the guidelines on the use of statins. So, when you get down to it, the fact is this. Serious adverse events are simply not reported from the major statins trials, the data are not released.

Which means that the data that are reported are completely skewed. Yes, statins (in secondary prevention) can reduce non-fatal MI and non-fatal strokes. But they increase other unpleasant things by approximately the same amount.

Now, let me take you back to the judgement on the Catalyst program.

‘The program’s treatment of use of statins in secondary prevention focused solely on mortality benefits in a way that reinforced the view that statins were overprescribed and their benefits exaggerated. The principal relevant perspective that statins have wider benefits for this group was not properly presented. This perspective was necessary to a fair understanding of the pros and cons of statin use in this group.’

The committee that sat in judgement of the Catalyst programme was, in my opinion, very fair in the vast majority of what they said. But on this issue they got it terribly wrong. I cannot really blame them, for they probably cannot believe that critical trial data on SEAs are simply withheld. It cannot even be seen by independent researchers.

Because you probably do not believe that this can possibly be true either, I am about to do something that I possibly should not. I have taken advice from a number of people on this, and the views are contradictory. I am about to reveal e-mails that I was sent, and I have not sought permission to do so. Frankly, I know that if I did I would never get permission from all the parties involved [as you will understand once you have read them]. However, I think they are of such enormous importance that people should know they exist, in order to make their own minds up.

The e-mails come from the following discussion. Whilst making the Catalyst programme, Maryanne Demasi contacted Professor Colin Baigent from the Cholesterol Treatment Triallists Collaboration (CTT). The CTT are Oxford based group that hold all the data from the statin trails (Exactly how much, and in how much detail, I have no idea). They are hugely influential, and their meta-analyses form the basis for guidelines on the use of statins around the world. In the UK, the latest NICE guidance will be based entirely on them.

I have known for some time that the CTT will not release the data that they hold, to anyone. But when I speak to journalists they don’t really believe me, much eye-rolling occurs. So, please read on, and find out the truth for yourself. [The only editing I have done to this e-mail trail is to remove all contact details, apart from the address of the CTSU which can be easily found]. You can amuse yourself by spotting the point where the lawyers get involved in drafting the e-mails.

 

To: Enquiries at CTT
From: Maryanne
Sent: 22 September 2013 05:05
Subject: URGENT COMMENT NEEDED PLEASE: ABC TV AUSTRALIA

Hi, I am a medical reporter for ABC TV AUSTRALIA and I am doing a report on statins in primary and secondary prevention.

I have interviewed Harvard Dr John Abramson about the over use of statins within the population and also the lack of transparency of data when it comes to clinical trials.

In the interview he mentions the CTT collaborators being one group who have access to individual data but will not share their data with the public or other researchers even though they’ve been asked.

Prof Rita Redberg from University of California San Francisco supports these statements.

I would like a comment from CTT collaboration regarding Dr Abramson’s and Prof Redberg’s statements please?

Why has the CTT Collaborations refused to release all the data requested of them?

Kind Regards
Maryanne Demasi
Producer
ABC TV AUSTRALIA

 

To: Maryanne Demasi
From: Colin Baigent – CTT
Date: Mon, 23 Sep 2013 21:37:01 +0000
Subject: FW: URGENT COMMENT NEEDED PLEASE: ABC TV AUSTRALIA

Dear Maryanne

Drs Abramson and Redberg are incorrect in stating that the Cholesterol Treatment Trialists’ (CTT) Collaboration has not shared data on the effects of statin therapy in healthy people. Comprehensive analyses of the effects of statins in people at low risk of heart disease or stroke were published (and widely publicised) in the Lancet in 2012, and directly addressed questions about the balance of benefits and risks of statins in such people. The work showed clearly that statins are of net benefit even among those with no previous history of cardiovascular disease.

I would be pleased to discuss this issue with you over the telephone if this would be helpful. I can be reached on +44…

Colin Baigent
Professor Colin Baigent
MRC Scientist & Hon Consultant in Public Health

Clinical Trial Service Unit & Epidemiological Studies Unit (CTSU)
Richard Doll Building
Old Road Campus
Roosevelt Drive
Oxford OX3 7LF

 

To: Rita Redberg and John Abramson
From: Maryann
On Sep 23, 2013, at 2:51 PM

Hi Rita and John,

Both of you mentioned in the interviews that the CTT collaborators don’t give full access to their data to public but the deny this. Please see below and respond as soon as possible please?

Many thanks

 

To: Maryanne Demasi
From: John Abramson
24/09/2013

To: Maryanne, Jim Wright

Maryanne,I have forwarded this to Jim Wright, who is the Co managing director of the Therapeutics Initiative in British Columbia. He has direct experience re ctt data sharing. I do not want to speak for him, but I believe he will be interested in the email below from Dr. Baigent.

Best wishes,
John

 

To: Maryanne Demasi
From: Rita Redber
24/09/2013

Publishing data that they have analyzed is NOT at all the same as giving full access to the public, or to other researchers. In whatever they publish, they maintain control and access to their data, the analyses etc. I am referring to the fact that CTT will not make their data available to any colleagues and other researchers who wish to study risks and benefits of statins. THe CTT data is not accessible publicly.

Rita

 

To: Colin Baigent
From: Maryanne Demasi
24 September 2013 00:50

Hi Colin, thanks for your time. 

I wasn’t referring to the published data, its the unpublished data. Dr Redberg has been specific:

“Publishing data that they have analyzed is NOT at all the same as giving full access to the public, or to other researchers. In whatever they publish, they maintain control and access to their data, the analyses etc. I am referring to the fact that CTT will not make their data available to any colleagues and other researchers who wish to study risks and benefits of statins. THe CTT data is not accessible publicly.”

Comment?

Cheers
 Maryanne

 

To: Maryanne
From: Colin Baigent
Tue, 24 Sep 2013 10:44:01

Dear Maryanne

This is again incorrect. The trials participating in the Collaboration contributed their data to the combined database on the understanding that the data would be held securely and that analyses would be  discussed and agreed by the collaborators before they are conducted. We meet annually, and discuss proposals for new analyses at those meetings. We welcome suggestions for new analyses from scientists who are not formally part of the Collaboration. If, after discussion, such proposals are felt to be scientifically worthwhile (and are feasible) they are conducted by the Secretariat, and the work is shared with collaborators (which then includes those who proposed the analyses).  It is important to recognise that data from participating trials are not owned by the Collaboration, but remain the property of the trial sponsors, so we are not able to provide unlimited access to the combined database. We do, however, provide a mechanism through which the data can be utilised for public benefit.

I hope this is helpful.

Colin Baigent

 

To: Colin Baigent
From: Maryanne Demasi
24 September 2013 13:26

Hi Colin,

Thanks for your moments. I just want to be clear about how i interpret your email.

The data from the clinical trials is “owned” by the trial sponsors – the statin manufacturers.

Hence, the CTT researchers can’t give full disclosure of the data to the public because the trial owners won’t allow them to? Correct?

Maryanne

 

To: Maryanne Demasi
From: Colin Baigent
Date: Tue, 24 Sep 2013 12:30:22

Dear Maryanne

No, this is again incorrect. I think it may be more efficient if you were to call me so that I can explain the process to you. If you wish to speak then I can be reached at the direct line below.

Colin Baigent

 

To: Rita Redberg, Jim Wright, John Abramson
From: Maryanne
Date: Tue, 24 Sep 2013 22:32:28

Hi Dr Redberg, Dr Abramson and Dr Wright

I wrote to the CTT collaborators (Colin Baignet) a second time specifying that its is the “unpublished” data that they are withholding.  His email is below.  Is it possible that I am asking the wrong CTT collaborators?

Am I missing something?

Regards

Maryanne

 

To: Colin Baigent
From: Maryanne Demasi
Tue, 24 Sep 2013 22:09:39

Unfortunately, I don’t have access to a work phone as its late here in Oz.  Also, our lawyers will want to see all these emails to ensure there hasn’t been a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of your position.  I will have to further clarify further with Prof Redberg, Dr John Abramson and Dr Jim Wright from the Therapeutics Initiative in Canada who all claim that the CTT collaborators do not give full disclosure of their data to the public and other researchers.  They have gone on record with this so the matter must be clarified.

Can you explain why they would say something like this?

Maryanne

 

To: Maryanne Demasi
From: Colin Baigent
Tue, 24 Sep 2013 17:02:23

Dear Maryanne

The CTT secretariat has agreement with the principal investigators of the trials and, in those instances where trial data were provided directly by the drug manufacturers,  with the companies themselves, that individual trial data will not be released to third parties.  Such an agreement was necessary in order that analyses of the totality of the available trial data could be conducted by the CTT Collaboration: without such an agreement the trial data could not have been brought together for systematic analysis. Such analysis has allowed the CTT Collaboration to conduct and report all of the analyses on efficacy and safety that have been sought directly or indirectly by others (eg by Dr Redberg in her papers on the efficacy and safety of statins in primary prevention, and in questions raised by the Cochrane Collaboration). Hence, the CTT Collaboration has made available findings that would not otherwise have emerged.

I would be very happy to ring you at whatever time is convenient for you in order to help you to understand our approach, and then address in writing any residual concerns. It would be a shame if we were not able to speak as this would be the most effective way of explaining things.

Please let me know where and some times when I can reach you, and I will endeavour to telephone.

Colin Baigent

 

To: Colin Baigent
From: Maryanne Demasi
24 Sep 2013, at 22:41

Hi Colin,

I am happy to talk to you.  Ive just arrived at work but understand if its too late in London to call you?!

I have to be honest.  I’m not sure why you keep saying my interpretation of the situation is incorrect because the way I read your last email, it tells me that “individual trial data will not be released to third parties”. (that is a direct quote from the email).

I completely understand the reasons why the CTT can not release this information but the purpose of this correspondence was to confirm that the comments of Prof Redberg, Dr Abramson and Dr Wright were factually correct – that they were not making false statements.

They explained that this is the problem with the data from clinical trials – that drug companies “own” the information and will only release what they want rather than having full disclosure of all the data to the public.

Regards

Maryanne Demasi

 

PHONE CALL WITH COLIN BAIGENT NOTES

I had a follow up conversation with Colin.  He stressed that while the CTT made an agreement with the drug companies not to give full disclosure of the individual data to third parties, the CTT had a very important role in providing doctors with the best information available.  He hoped that my report did not undermine the workings of the CTT.

 

To: Maryanne Demasi
From: Jim Wright
26/09/2013

To: Maryanne Demasi

The truth is that Colin agreed for me to send a student to do that analysis in 2007.  When the student Michelle Wong arrived there he would not let her have access to the data and do the analysis.  We would have done the analysis differently and had a better idea of whether the benefits outweighed the harms in low risk people.  I am not convinced by their 2012 analysis, which is based on little or no harm.

Kind regards,

Jim Wright
Editor-in-Chief
Therapeutics Letter

 


Postscript

So now you know that no-one can see the data. Now you also know that the criticism of the Catalyst programme was unfounded. Balance on the ‘non-mortality’ data on statins is impossible as the data on SEAs are hidden. Yes, know the things that statins can prevent e.g. non-fatal heart attacks, but we do not know the equal and opposite things they cause.

The reality is that, if you all did present the data on non-fatal CV events prevented with statins, you would be presenting catastrophically flawed data. Biased, and unbalanced. Yet, Catalyst is told that this is what they should have done.

I know that nothing anyone says will make any difference to ABC now. They just want the attacks to go away. However, I hope that a few thousand more people are now aware of the truth of this matter.

References (may require site registration or membership to access)

1: http://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/may/12/abc-takes-down-catalyst-heart-disease-episodes-after-review-criticism

2: http://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/3/1/e002308.long

3: http://about.abc.net.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Catalyst-Heart-of-the-Matter-ACA-Investigation-Report.pdf

4: http://www.cochrane.org/features/cochrane-signs-alltrials-initiative-campaign-registration-and-reporting-all-clinical-trials

5: http://www.drfernyhough.ca/Cardiovascular%20disease/files/tag-cardiovascular.html

6: http://www.ti.ubc.ca/newsletter/serious-adverse-event-analysis-lipid-lowering-therapy-revisited

 

 

 

Conflict of Interest at the CTT?

What is a conflict of interest? One definition is thus: ‘A conflict of interest is a set of circumstances that creates a risk that professional judgement or actions regarding a primary interest will be unduly influenced by a secondary interest.’

Or, in my simple world. ‘Someone pays you money. You then say or do things that you would not have said or done, if they hadn’t.’ The secondary interest doesn’t have to be directly monetary. It could be a promise of a promotion, or an invitation to be chairman of an important committee, or a chance to meet someone famous, or watch a world cup final, or suchlike.

However, for the sake of keeping things simple, we are talking about money here. We are talking about pharmaceutical companies paying money to medical ‘experts’, who may then say or do things that they would not otherwise have said or done.

The first problem is, thus. How do you know they would not have said or done it anyway? If the dairy industry paid me a million pounds to say ‘Dairy foods do not cause heart disease.’ This would be a bonus. Because it is what I believe, it is what I say already, and you really don’t need to pay me a million pounds to say it. [Although I am open to offers].

However, if I was paid a million pounds and I then said ‘dairy foods to do not cause heart disease’, and you discovered that the dairy industry had paid me a million pounds, what would you think? I know exactly what you would think. ‘I trusted him, now it turns out he is just lining his wallet, the same as everyone else.’ Some would state this more vehemently than others. However, any reputation that I have would never be the same again. There would always be that loss of trust. That doubt.

The people we admire and trust the most do not take backhanders. Pity.

For many years, pharmaceutical companies paid doctors ‘honoraria’, which is just a posh word for money. The doctors happily stuffed said honoraria into their bank balances, and no-one seemed much bothered. You did not need to declare any financial interests, and the only limitation on how much you got paid was your perceived value to the companies.

Your value was measured in a few different ways:

1. Ability to influence other doctors – your status as an ‘opinion leader’
2. Your quality as a speaker at meetings and/or ability to set up and run clinical trials
3. Your influence within the healthcare system i.e. do you advise Governments on treatment, do you sit on committees that advice NICE, or the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA)
4. Your position on Guideline committees. Can you play a key role in writing the guidelines that other doctors have to follow e.g. drug x a must be used first line in all patients with condition y.

These things are, of course, all linked. As an expert you start on rung one and two, and then move onto three and four. Your progress up this ladder requires very close links with the industry. You cannot influence other doctors if you haven’t done research, and it is very difficult to do research without industry funding. If not impossible.

At a certain point in the process, you become exceedingly important to the industry. In fact there are companies who support the pharmaceutical industry whose entire raison d’etre is to manage Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs).

According to Dan Mintze, senior director, heartbeat experts, “The management of KOLs needs to be broader than identifying, segmenting, influence mapping and working with clinicians in order for products to gain clinical approval. Rather a comprehensive KOL solution which includes the identification and appropriate engagement of KOLs who impact market access decisions e.g. KOLs who serve as Government or payer advisory board members (see figure 3) should be adopted.” Such pharma-KOL engagement will lead to the development of value messages that can help pharma to access the market faster, gain quicker product adoption, and increase bottom line performance.’ [my words in bold]  Original PDF here

The more you increase bottom line performance, the more you are worth, and the more you get paid. Strangely, some left-wing commies a.k.a ‘people’ began to object to this cosy relationship. A bit too much potential for the situation whereby… a primary interest will be unduly influenced by a secondary interest.

Luckily this problem was instantly solved, amid scenes of wild rejoicing, by ensuring that doctors who did major studies, or wrote articles and suchlike, must disclose their conflicts of interest. Once this had been done there was nothing to worry about, ever again. [joke]
Although, what we are supposed to do with a disclosure of interest has never really been explained. As a Swedish doctor wrote to me:

‘While we are at this: I have often wanted to ask the purpose of revealing possible/probable conflicts of interest. Just what are we supposed to do with that editorial caveat? Does it mean the data might be suspect? If the editors want us to know it is suspect then why do they publish it?

If it means we should interpret the data with caution, can someone tell me how one is to be cautious. Does it mean one believes none of it or does one believe some of it? If the latter then which part do we believe and/or which do we not believe. Just how are we supposed to judge these things, after having been warned to beware?

Indeed, what are we supposed to do? The other problem is that, whilst doctors are meant to declare their conflicts, quite often they do not. Here is an addendum taken from the Journal of the American Medical Association.

It was in response to an article which was written by a number of authors, who did not see to need report any of their conflicts. Some eagle eyed readers wrote in to complain, and the journal responded thus [I put in bold those companies who would have benefitted financially from the original paper]:

Unreported Financial Disclosures in: ‘Association of LDL Cholesterol, Non–HDL Cholesterol, and Apolipoprotein B Levels With Risk of Cardiovascular Events Among Patients Treated With Statins: A Meta-analysis.’

….the following disclosures should have been reported: “Dr Mora reports receipt of travel accommodations/meeting expenses from Pfizer; Dr Durrington reports provision of consulting services to Hoffman-La Roche, delivering lectures or serving on the speakers bureau for Pfizer, and receipt of royalties from Hodder Arnold Health Press; Dr Hitman reports receipt of lecture fees and travel expenses from Pfizer, provision of consulting services on advisory panels to GlaxoSmithKline, Merck Sharp & Dohme, Eli Lilly, and Novo Nordisk, receipt of a grant from Eli Lilly, and delivering lectures or serving on the speakers bureau for GlaxoSmithKline, Takeda, and Merck Sharp & Dohme; Dr Welch reports receipt of a grant, consulting fees, travel support, payment for writing or manuscript review, and provision of writing assistance, medicines, equipment, or administrative support from Pfizer, and provision of consultancy services to Edwards, MAP, and NuPathe; Dr Demicco reports having stock/stock options with Pfizer; Dr Clearfield reports provision of consulting services on advisory committees to Merck Sharp & Dohme and AstraZeneca; Dr Tonkin reports provision of consulting services to Pfizer, delivering lectures or serving on the speakers bureau for Novartis and Roche, and having stock/stock options with CSL and Sonic Health Care; and Dr Ridker reports board membership with Merck Sharp & Dohme and receipt of a grant or pending grant to his institution from Amgen. (original JAMA correction here.)

As you can see, Paul Ridker had board membership with Merck Sharp and Dohme, and simply forgot the mention it. The authors’ collective punishment? Well, you have just seen it. Essentially, there is no punishment. A bit of momentary embarrassment, soon forgotten. [Although not by everybody, guys].

However, the steady pressure for doctors to provide disclosures of interest has had one major impact. It has made it a bloody site more difficult to know where the conflicts of interest might actually lie.

For it has been decreed….I don’t know who decreed, or agreed it, that if you are paid money directly by a pharmaceutical company, or say a PR company working for the industry, you have a financial conflict of interest that you must/should declare.

However, if you work for an organisation such as the Cleveland Clinic, or the Clinical Trials Research Unit (CTSU) in Oxford things are different. The clinic is paid money by the industry, and then the clinic pays you. This means that you are not conflicted in any way. You need not declare anything. Why?

I don’t know who stated that this is acceptable. As with most things in this area we are in a shadow world full of ghostly apparitions that elude your grasp. ‘They said it was fine.’ And who, exactly, are they. There is no oversight committee here, no investigations carried out, no rulebook, no punishment. Just a very woolly gentlemen’s agreement amongst the great and the good of medical research.

However, because it has been agreed, in some mysterious way, that ‘second hand’ payments are fine, it means that those working at the Cleveland Clinic, the CTSU, and suchlike, feel able to state that they have no financial conflicts – at all. Even if the organisation they work for earns hundreds of millions, or billions, in industry funding.

If those working at the CTSU do, somehow, find themselves working directly with the industry, they now give any money they might have eared to charity. To quote their rules on the matter:

Guidelines for CTSU staff with respect to honoraria and any
other payments offered and share ownership

——-

d: If an honorarium is declined, the intended CTSU recipient can still mention that a
corresponding amount might be donated to a specific charity.

A corresponding amount to a specific charity. What charity?

‘I guess if I had any advice for reporters, I would say, ask your local university if they’ve set up any associated [non-profit organizations]; many universities have an associated charity or foundation through which they solicit donations from corporate sponsors to support medical research. Find out about who those corporate sponsors are. Unfortunately, many universities set up these associated charities and foundations in such a way that they don’t have to disclose much publicly – ask about that, you know, try to push.’  (original article here)

Push away, but I don’t expect you will get very far.

Anyway, we are now supposed to believe that highly qualified and very influential KOLs, who work at the CTSU in Oxford, carry out work on behalf pharmaceutical companies for no payment, whatsoever. This is just charity work. Helping impoverished pharmaceutical companies is the same, really, as helping starving orphans in Africa.

Strangely, it appears that the CTSU doesn’t mind in the least that their staff are spending large chunks of their professional life helping pharmaceutical companies – out of the goodness of their hearts. The CTSU gets nothing; the pharmaceutical companies get nothing, other than a warm glow in their hearts. Meanwhile a ‘specific charity’ is doing rather well. Whatever that specific charity may be?

Of course the CTSU itself does rather well from the industry. Just for carrying out one of their many studies, REVERSE, they received £96million ($155million) from Merck Sharp and Dohme.

Yet, despite the huge sums of industry money sloshing about in the CTSU there are absolutely no conflicts of interest going on here. We are told this by none other than the CTSU itself. No-one is paid money directly by the industry in any way. So that is fine.
As Robbie Burns said: ‘O, wad some Power the giftie gie us to see oursels as others see us. It wad frae monie a blunder free us.’

As a sort of footnote to this blog, you may be interested to know that the Cholesterol Treatment Triallists Collaboration (CTT) in Oxford is probably the most influential organisation in directing the management of CV disease around the world.
The ACC/AHA guidelines launched last year in the US are based on the latest CTT meta-analysis; as are the latest NICE guidelines in the UK. The Cochrane Collaboration, which is also highly influential world-wide, changed their guidance on the use of statins in primary prevention, based on the CTT meta-analysis.

In short, if you want to identify a group of KOLs who can truly increase ‘bottom line performance’, you will not find any organisation more powerful than this. Best of all, CTT have absolutely no conflicts of interest with the pharmaceutical industry either. If you want to contact the CTT about any of this, you can e-mail them at: CTT@ctsu.ox.ac.uk

Although now dead, the Cholesterolosaurus will march on

A meta-analysis including 530,525 people, partly funded by the British Heart Foundation, and published in the Annals of Internal Medicine has just come to this conclusion:

Conclusion: Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats1.

Or to put it another way, there is no evidence that saturated fat consumption has anything, whatsoever, to do with causing heart disease, or strokes. Once again I get to say ‘I told you so.’ Ah, the four most satisfying words in the English language. That is, when arranged in that particular order.

So, eat butter, drink milk, and throw away the horrible sugar-loaded low fat yoghurt. Go to France and enjoy the highest saturated fat diet in Europe and you, too, can enjoy the French rate of heart disease. Yes, of course, the lowest in Europe.

But now what happens? You see, the entire edifice of the cholesterol hypothesis is held together by two links in a chain. Link one is that saturated fat consumption raises cholesterol levels. Link two is that raised cholesterol levels then cause heart disease.

Various ‘experts’ have simplified this to the very simple equation:

A (saturated fat in the diet) > B (high cholesterol levels) > C (heart disease)

This is the cholesterol hypothesis, or the lipid hypothesis, and it has driven medical thinking for the last sixty years.

I have had it painstakingly explained to me, by very clever people, exactly how saturated fat raises cholesterol levels. Indeed, you will find ‘evidence’ for this almost universally accepted fact in literally thousands of clinical studies. Here is what Wikipedia has to say on the matter

There are strong, consistent, and graded relationships between saturated fat intake, blood cholesterol levels, and the mass occurrence of cardiovascular disease. The relationships are accepted as causal2.’

Okay, let us accept that eating saturated fat does raise cholesterol levels. However, if consumption of saturated fat does not increase the rate of heart disease then….. Then raised cholesterol levels can have nothing whatsoever to do with causing heart disease. Just keep chasing the implications of that statement around in your head for a while.

So what happens now? We now have a cholesterol/lipid hypothesis that just had its head blown off. Yet, it still continues to wander about, unaware that it is actually dead.

As everyone knows you can chop the head off a chicken and it can wander about for years. I was also informed, when I was an open-mouthed child, that you could shoot a dinosaur through the head and it would continue to blunder about for some time, the rest of its body blissfully unaware that it was actually dead.

Well, the cholesterol hypothesis has just been shot dead, but I suspect it will continue to rampage about, stomping on puny humans for many years, before it finally keels over and admits that it is dead.

But I say, farewell Cholsterolosaurus. You are now a deceased hypothesis. Gone to meet your maker. You just don’t know it yet. Because the people that believe in you do not understand logic.

1: http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=1846638
2: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saturated_fat

A farewell to statins – part two

And so it begins:

‘ …..a Pfizer rep confirmed to me that they were now telling all GP’s that statins do have side-effects and shouldn’t be prescribed anymore but to prescribe the new post-statin drugs…………. how two-faced can you get!!!!’

This was in an e-mail from a friend and supporter of mine, who has close contacts with the pharmaceutical industry.

Well, if you are going to challenge the dominant position of statins, the first thing that you have to do is to attack them. What is the best line of attack? Go after their greatest weakness, which is that they cause serious adverse effects, and damage the quality of life of many people. Something I have been saying for a long, long, time.

For years the experts have informed us that this is utter rubbish, statins are wonder-drugs, and adverse effect free. All of a sudden, now that the pharmaceutical industry is about to launch new cholesterol lowering agents, we are suddenly going to find that, why, after all, statins do cause a whole range of nasty adverse effects.

If you want to see exactly how this is going to be done, watch this discussion on Medscape.  The Medscape site needs a password, however you can get one fairly simply. In this ‘educational’ discussion we see three professors talking about the new cholesterol lowering agents that are soon to arrive. The dreaded PCSK9-inhibitors.

The names of these three professors are Prof Christie Ballantyne, Prof Stephen Nicholls and – yes, you guessed it – Prof Steven Nissen. Is there a new cardiovascular drug in development that he does not get involved with?

The first part of the discussion focusses entirely on the terrible problem of people being statin intolerant; people being unable to take high doses of statins, and the high burden of adverse-effects from statins.

A slide is shown from the PRIMO observational study showing that 15% of people taking atorvastatin have significant adverse effects, and 20% of those taking simvastatin suffer significant adverse effects. These, of course, are the two statins with by far the greatest market share. My, what a coincidence.

The discussion then opens out into the worrying problems with statins causing both diabetes and cognitive dysfunction (something vehemently denied for many, many years). Ballantyne was particularly eloquent on these issues.

The entire tone is one more of sorrow than anger. ‘Statins….great drugs….hate to see them go, but you know, their time is passing.’ Professor wipes a small tear from his eye at the thought.

I watch this stuff with a kind of morbid fascination. The marketing game is on, billions are about to be spent pushing PCSK9-inhibitors. The Key Opinion Leaders who tirelessly promoted the wonders of statins, and who told us that they were virtually side-effect free, are now singing a completely different tune.

Here is what one the panellists Prof Christie Ballantyne had to say about statin adverse effects in his book ‘Dyslipidemia & Atherosclerosis Essentials 2009’. This can be found on page 91, under the heading Adverse Effects and Monitoring.

Statins are very well tolerated with infrequent and reversible adverse effects. In large placebo controlled studies the frequency of adverse effects was similar to placebo (2-3%).’

Here, however, is what he said in March 2013

“Some people have hereditary disorders and have extremely high LDLs. And so the statin has some efficacy but not enough to get them down as low as they’d like.  Then some people have less response than others, and we don’t understand all of that. Some of that may be genetic. And it turns out there’s an even probably larger group of people that have a hard time taking a high dose of a statin.”

Even though statins are safe for most people, there are those that can’t take them because they experience side effects.

Many people complain of some muscle pain, soreness, weakness, excessive fatigability.  There’s some slight increase in diabetes also. That can occur with high dose statins, and some people [who] say that they may have problems with their nerves or cognition.”1

Well, that is all nice and consistent. Finally, here he is on Sunday 8th Dec, quoted as part of a discussion on the new AHA/ACC guidelines.

“Clearly, the focus is to get people on statins,” said Dr. Christie Mitchell Ballantyne, the chief of cardiology and cardiovascular research at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston. “But if someone has seen four doctors and tried six statins and tells me they can’t take them, what am I going to do? Tell them they are a failure?”

Ballantyne said he would give such patients a non-statin drug, despite the guidelines.’2

….Ballantyne said he would give such patients a non-statin drug, despite the guidelines.’ I wonder what he could possibly mean by this. Perhaps George Orwell had it right.

‘Four legs good, two legs bad’……becomes….’Four legs good, two legs better.’

“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

[A farewell to statins – Part three will arrive at some point.]

P.S. Please watch the video clip soon, as I suspect it may not last very long after this blog.

1: http://www.houstonpublicmedia.org/articles/1362665170-Promising-Baylor-Research-Reduces-Bad-Cholesterol.html

2: http://www.staradvertiser.com/news/20131114_New_cholesterol_advice_startles_even_some_doctors.html

A farewell to statins – part one

In the end I knew that statins would be overthrown. Their time, like the dinosaurs would come to an end.  I also knew it would be nothing to do with me, or any of the other critics. Nor would it have anything to do with the fact that their terrible burden of adverse effects finally came to light.

No, it would be because their patents ran out, which meant that the big pharmaceutical companies could not make eye-watering profits from them anymore. Inevitably, therefore, they would be replaced. Indeed, for years I have watched, with varying degrees of amusement, the unending efforts to unearth the ‘new’ statins. The wonder drugs to be taken by everyone, for the rest of their lives. The ones that will make billions for the pharmaceutical companies, and several millions for the key opinion leaders promoting them.

Steven Nissen had a go with apoA-1 Milano. This is a little story you may want to look up on Wikipedia.  Basically, a small village was found in Italy (near Milan) where people had very low rates of heart disease, and they also had very low levels of HDL ‘good’ cholesterol.

Turning science on its head, it was therefore decreed that their HDL must be especially ‘good’ at preventing heart disease. [Rather than accept that HDL had bugger all to do with heart disease]. So attempts were made to synthesize their form of HDL, then inject it into patients. This was done in small scale clinical studies.

So brilliantly did Nissen sell the results of these studies that a start-up company called Esperion, which funded the trials, was sold to Pfizer for over a billion dollars on the back of the results. If you want to find out more, the HDL synthesized was called ETC-216, not apoA-1 Milano.

This is what Steven Nissen had to say about the trials.

The fact that you can actually pull major amounts of plaque out of the artery in five or six weeks is an epiphany,” Nissen says. H. Bryan Brewer, chief of the molecular disease branch at the National Heart, Blood & Lung Institute, adds: “Quite to everyone’s surprise, this indicates that we might be able to be much more successful in a shorter period of time than we thought possible.”

By golly it all sounds very exciting, does it not.  Pulling significant amounts of plaque out of artery walls, in six weeks! This is quite amazing, what a brilliant drug. In truth, though, that quote was from 2003. Has anything since happened since to this magical plaque munching HDL? Is it now on the market, saving lives? Well, as you ask, the answer is no.

However, several other HDL raising agents have also been developed in the last few years. Unfortunately, they also raised the risk of heart attacks and strokes – then disappeared. Torcetrapib, dalcetrapib, anacetrapib…. A yes, anacetrapib, not quite gone yet.

Anacetrapib has a knock-your-socks-off effect on HDL and a jaw-dropping effect on LDL,” said Chris Cannon in an AHA press release.  He also said “The lipid effects are jaw dropping in both directions,” Yes, indeed, they were.  Although I am not sure that ‘jaw dropping’ and ‘knock your socks-off’ are truly scientific terms.

But then Forbes ran this headline on the 22nd October

Merck Heart Drug Runs Into New Worry.’ 1

As an aside, you can find out far more about drugs in development by reading Forbes magazine than you will ever get from the scientific journals.

Anyway, I wouldn’t bet the house on anacetrapib as I suspect it will soon follow the other ‘trapibs’ into an early grave. But never mind, Lilly has yet another HDL raising agent waiting in the pipeline, evacetrapib. What is it with these unpronounceable names, and why don’t these companies just give up? However, perhaps this one has a better shot than most, because as Steven Nissen said of dalcetrapib…

Dalcetrapib was always a long shot,” said Steven Nissen, chairman of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. “The worry all along was that it wouldn’t have enough effect to produce a benefit,”

Then, as he went on to say of evacetrapib

We got everything we could hope for from this drug, and maybe more,” remarked study co-author Steven Nissen, adding that “we are going to move evacetrapib forward as rapidly as possible” into a late-stage trial.” Gosh, he is running a study on evacetrapib too.  He was also lead investigator for Torcetrapib2.

That Steven Nissen, what a busy chap he is?  Wasn’t he the one who said about the new cardiovascular prevention guidelines.  “The evidence was never there” for the LDL targets, he said. Past committees “made them up out of thin air,” he added.  Why yes, I think he was.

Anyway. They have tried raising HDL…fail. They have tried a different way of lowering LDL using ezetimibe. It lowered LDL, and has had absolutely no effect on cardiovascular disease…fail. They have tried combing different HDL raising agents with statins….fail.

You know, you might even begin to think that raising HDL wasn’t that good an idea. Billions have been thrown this target, everything has miserably failed. It is also interesting that LDL lowering agents, other than statins, have failed to have any impact on cardiovascular disease. Has this had any effect on the lipid hypothesis? You must be joking.

Given this litany of disastrous drugs trials, why do I now believe that statins are about to be overthrown? What agents could be out there that are going to sweep them into the dustbin of history.

Clearly it cannot be an agent that lowers LDL even more than statins. Can it? Well, Steven Nissen has recently said the following about LDL lowering. This quote is in connection to new drugs being developed3.

 “….it matters how you lower cholesterol, not just by how much.”

It matters how you lower cholesterol, not just by how much….. Interesting.  Well, if cholesterol does cause heart disease, then it doesn’t really matter how you lower it, does it? The only question is, by how much? Or is Steven Nissen trying to say something else?

As a further aside, if you want to know where the really big bucks are being spent in cardiovascular research, and what is in the pipeline, all you need to do is follow Steven Nissen’s pronouncements. He is the weather vane. You don’t need to be a weather man to know which way the wind is blowing.

…… (to be continued)

 

1: http://www.forbes.com/sites/matthewherper/2013/10/22/merck-heart-drug-runs-into-new-worry/

2: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304363104577389353232022644

3: http://www.forbes.com/sites/johnlamattina/2013/09/05/esperions-novel-approach-to-lowering-cholesterol-will-it-be-successful/

What is your ‘Statin by date’?

Somewhat to my chagrin, I filled in my risk factors into the new ACC/AHA guidelines on cardiovascular disease prevention. I now find that I should have started statins eight weeks ago. Naughty, naughty, me. My blood pressure was a bit higher than the calculator liked 138/82, my cholesterol quite a bit higher at 6.0mmol/l.

Which means that I have already passed the 7.5% ten year risk score. O….M…..G. (I think my picture makes me look a bit younger than I am, although it was only taken last year – honest)

What to do?

I am now well beyond my ‘Statin by date.’ No longer can I be healthy without taking a statin. By the way, a friend came up with the concept of ‘statin by date.’ It did make me laugh, conjuring up the image of a sell by date on a can of baked beans. Or maybe Logan’s run. If you remember that film, once you reached the age of, I think it was thirty, you had to leave the colony as you had reached your sell by date.  ‘No this is not au-revoir…. It is goodbye.’

Can I be reassured that my parents are both alive and healthy in their late eighties. My grandmother, on my mother’s side, lived to one hundred and two. No idea about my father’s side. WWII did for both my grandparents on that side.

Can I feel comfort in the fact that I play squash three times a week, go to the gym twice a week and walk when I can? Mind you all of this is wiped out by my excess consumption of alcohol I suppose – unfortunately. Also, I am in the overweight category with a BMI, of 28. But wait, isn’t the entire English rugby team obese, using the BMI. Must be all the training and muscle bulk that does it. Yes, the jolly old BMI.

No, I thought I was a pretty healthy chap. I have no real risk factors for heart disease at all. A resting pulse rate of 48, a reasonable blood pressure……

In truth I feel terribly sorry for the Swiss. They have the highest average cholesterol level in Europe at 6.4mmol/l (250mg/dl in those inconvenient US units). Surely the entire nation must be put on statins straight away. But, hold on, wait just one gosh darned minute. Don’t they have the second lowest rate of heart disease in Europe?

Why yes, they do. Only beaten by the French. Who have an average cholesterol levels higher than most other countries, they also eat the most saturated fat in Europe, and yet they have the lowest rate of heart disease. About one quarter that of the UK and US. I wonder how the ACC/AHA calculator works for them? Perhaps not that well.  Ah oui, bonne chance. Zey must be, ‘ow you say ‘une paradox’. (Or would that be ‘un paradox’)

As you can tell I think I am grasping at straws. Who am I to attempt to stand against the massed intellectual power of the ‘experts.’ The reality is that I feel the breath of the grim reaper on the back of my neck, scythe in hand. I am now eight weeks past my statin by date, and I am not taking statins. The clock ticks in the background, I can sense the disapproval of cardiologists around the world weighing heavily upon me.

‘Forgive me father, for I haven’t statined.’

You need a statin – now what was the question?

As many of you are aware the American College of Cardiology (ACC) and the American Heart Association (AHA) came out with new guidelines on cardiovascular disease prevention a few days ago. As part of this, they produce a risk calculator. Using this calculator, if your risk of heart attack or stroke is greater and 7.5% over the next 10 years, you should take a statin – for the rest of your life.

I downloaded this calculator, and I have been playing around with it. I think I would tend to agree with the headline in the NY times 18th November 2013:

Risk Calculator for Cholesterol Appears Flawed

To be frank you can fiddle around with the figures on this calculator for hours. I think my OCD is getting worse. (Maybe I should take a statin to cure my OCD). One of the questions I wanted to find an answer to was the following, at what age would a perfectly healthy man (with ‘optimal’ risk factors) have to take a statin for the rest of his life.

So, I fed in the figures, and use the ‘optimal’ figures for cholesterol and blood pressure on the risk calculator

THE PERFECTLY HEALTHY MAN

  • Male
  • Age 63
  • Race: WH (white)
  • Total cholesterol 170mg/dl [This is 4.4mmol/l in Europe i.e. very low]
  • HDL cholesterol 50md/dl [This is 1.3mmol/l in Europe]
  • Systolic blood pressure 110mmHg
  • Non-smoker
  • No treatment for high blood pressure
  • Non diabetic

CV risk over the next 10 years = 7.5%

So, there you are. You can do absolutely everything ‘right’ be as healthy as healthy can be – according to the AHA and ACC. Yet, by the age of sixty three you need to take a statin – for the rest of your life.

The next question I wanted to find the answer to was, at what age does a ‘normal’, very healthy man have to start using a statin? In the UK, the average total cholesterol for men is 5.0mmol/l. [this is 193mg/dl in the US]. The average blood pressure in the UK systolic is 129mmHg.  (To be frank, I think the average cholesterol level for men is higher than this, but the WHO says not).

Feed these figures in, and you would need to start taking a statin, for the rest of your life, by the age of fifty eight. Which means that very healthy men, with no real risk factors for cardiovascular disease – at all – have to start statins at fifty eight.

What of women. Well, they get another seven years of statin free life. A super healthy woman, with optimal risk factors, reaches the dreaded 7.5% risk aged 70. An ‘average’ healthy women, with average BP and cholesterol levels, would have to start a statin aged sixty three.

In summary, using this risk calculator, extremely healthy men will be starting statins at fifty eight, and very healthy women at sixty three. This, then, marks the age at which life becomes a statin deficient state. You can be as healthy as healthy can be. You can do everything right, have no risk factors at all for cardiovascular disease, and yet you still need to take medication to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Sorry, what was the question again?

European cardiovascular disease statistics can be found here.

If not cholesterol – what?

(Part 2 of an occasional series about what really causes heart disease)

One of the greatest strengths of the cholesterol hypothesis is that there is no obvious alternative to replace it with. Stress? Well I believe that, in fact, stress is the number on cause of premature cardiovascular disease (although there are many provisos attached to this statement).

But if stress does cause heart disease, how does it do this? With the cholesterol hypothesis you have the massive advantage of superficial simplicity

  • You eat too much cholesterol
  • The level of cholesterol in your blood rises
  • The excess cholesterol is deposited in the artery wall, causing narrowings/thickenings (plaques)
  • Eventually these block the circulation, causing heart attacks and strokes

Dead simple?

Of course, when exposed to the harsh light of critical thought, each link in this neat and tidy causal chain crumbles to dust. But it is such a seductive hypothesis that the mind is drawn back to it again and again, like moths to candlelight. It seems so perfectly simple that it must be true.

On the other hand, as I write this, I am also studying the cover of a recent British Medical Journal (BMJ). The headline is ‘Cardiovascular Disease and Aircraft Noise.’ You may have heard about this research in the mainstream media. It seems that living near an airport raises the risk of stroke by 24%, and the risk of heart disease by 21%. It is suggested this is due to the noise pollution. Okay, nice idea, but how?

How can aircraft noise cause your arteries to thicken and narrow?

I believe that this can be explained, but only if you completely discard the cholesterol hypothesis of cardiovascular disease, and look afresh at what heart disease may actually be, and how it is caused.

Atherothrombosis

At this point I am going to introduce a relatively arcane term, ‘atherothrombosis’. No, I have not just made this word up. Nor is it recent. In fact, the basic idea has been kicking around for the last one hundred and sixty years. The concept of atherothrombosis was first proposed by Karl Von Rokitansky in 1852. He believed that thickenings in arteries, or plaques, were the end result of thrombosis (blood clots) forming on the arterial wall. Mainly because plaques looked exactly like blood clots, and seem to contain the same materials e.g. fibrin (a key ingredient of blood clots).

Virchow, another doctor and researcher, who lived during the same era, and who was significantly more influential, argued that this was nonsense. He had noted that plaques were to be found underneath the lining of the artery (endothelium). He argued that it was not possible for a clot to form within the artery wall itself. Frankly, a pretty good argument in the light of their knowledge at the time.

It was also Virchow who noted that plaques contained a lot of cholesterol, and so he hypothesised that cholesterol in the blood irritated the lining of the artery and then entered the arterial wall. Thus began the cholesterol hypothesis.

Although Virchow won the argument, the atherothrombosis hypothesis has sprung back into life at various point over the years, only to die back again. A fellow Scot called Duguid promoted the idea heavily around the second world war, and just after. Various other researchers have also supported the concept that heart disease is primarily due to blood clotting (thrombosis) – in some way.

Interestingly, at one point Pfizer also started to promote atherothrombosis as the cause of heart disease. For sentimental reasons I have kept hold of an educational booklet produced by Pfizer in 1992. On page four it states

Several features of mature plaques, such as their multi-layered pattern, suggest that the platelet aggregation and thrombus formation are key elements in the progression of atherosclerosis. Platelets are also known to provide a rich source of growth factors, which can stimulate plaque development.

Given the insidious nature of atherosclerosis, it is vital to consider the role of platelets and thrombosis in this process.’ [Well, quite]

There is little point in referencing this document, as I probably have the only copy left in existence. It is called ‘Pathologic triggers. New insights into cardiovascular risk.’ Produced by Medi Cine Inc. For Prizer Inc Copyright 1992, All rights reserved etc. etc.

It is interesting that when Pfizer did not have a statin, they were looking away from cholesterol as a cause of cardiovascular disease. It will come as no surprise to you that this was not through some altruistic attempt to discover the truth about the true cause of heart disease. It was to help market their drug doxazosin (a BP lowering drug) which had some additional anticoagulant properties.

Of course, as soon as atorvastatin arrived on the scene, no more was heard from Pfizer about the ridiculous concept of atherothrombosis. It was cholesterol, cholesterol, all the way, and fifty billion dollars in profit from atorvastatin.

Pity, really, because in my view, Pfizer had it right in 1992. C’est la vie.

Perhaps I am straying from the issue here. What is atherothrombosis? Or, what is the hypothesis of atherothrombosis?

It goes something like this:

  • The lining of the artery (endothelium) is damaged
  • A thrombus (blood clot) forms over the area of damage
  • After a very short time the blood clot stops growing – and stabilises
  • Blood cells called endothelial progenitor cells (EPCs) are attracted the surface of the clot
  • The EPCs grow bigger, join together at the edges, and form a new endothelial layer on top of the thrombus [so the thrombus is now present inside the artery wall]
  • Various repair systems go into action, to clear away the thrombus from within the artery wall

Rokitanksy did not know there were such things as EPCs, so he had no explanation as to how the thrombus could be found underneath the endothelium (single later of cells lining artery walls). The answer is, of course, that the endothelium was not there when the thrombus occurred. It reformed on top of the thrombus. Yes, simple when you know how.

Had Rokitansky known this, and won the argument, we would possibly never have heard of cholesterol ever again. Unfortunately, as he didn’t know that EPCs existed, Virchow kicked the idea of atherothrombosis into touch, and so cholesterol became the single molecule that has triggered more Nobel prize winning research than any other.

The role of endothelial Progenitor Cells

I recently asked a medical student who had the misfortune of being stuck with me for the day.

Me:  ‘What happens in you scratch your skin.
Medical student : ‘You bleed.’
Me: ‘Then what?’
Medical Student: ‘A scab forms.’
Me: ‘Then what?
Medical student:  ‘The scab falls off after your skin has healed.’
Me: ‘Good, so what happens if you scratch/damage the lining of your artery?’
Medical student: ‘A scab/thrombus forms.’
Me: ‘Then?’
Medical student: ‘Then it falls off…..’
Me: ‘Then what happens?’
Medical student: ‘It….’
Me: ‘It travels down the artery till the artery narrows, and the blood clot gets stuck somewhere?’
Medical student: ‘Ummmm….’
Me: ‘Ummmm, indeed.’

Clearly, you cannot have blood clots breaking off and travelling down arteries to get stuck further down. This would be horribly damaging.  Strangely, human physiology is a bit cleverer than that. Yes, if you scratch your skin the clot/thrombus falls off after the skin has healed. This causes no harm to anything. But a damaged blood vessel has to be able to get rid of the thrombus that forms without it breaking off and travelling to the nearest organ e.g. the brain, where it blocks a blood vessel and causes a stroke.

Also, the lining of the artery wall is nothing like the skin. The most superficial layer of the skin (the epidermis) is a single layer of cells. But this layer starts life deeper down, in the dermis. Cells formed in the dermis gradually move towards the surface where they then fall off.

However, the single layered of cells lining the artery walls do not start life deeper in the artery wall, and grow outwards (or inwards). These cells come from within the bloodstream itself. These are Endothelial Progenitor Cells (EPCs). They are formed in the bone marrow and float around in the bloodstream. They are attracted to areas of endothelial damage. They stick to these areas, grow into mature endothelial cells, and form a new layer of endothelium.

A neat and perfect system for ensuring that damage to blood vessels can be covered over, and the resulting thrombus does not end up jamming up the downstream blood vessels. Ask the average doctor about EPCs and I can guarantee they have never heard of them. Never, ever. Important little things though.

As you age, the production of EPCs falls. If you are stressed, the production of EPCs falls. If you take steroids the production of EPCs falls. If you have kidney disease, the production of EPCs falls. Guess what. All of these things are associated with a vastly greater risk of cardiovascular disease. Vastly greater.

For now just to look more closely at one of these risk factors, steroids. Steroids are used in a wide range of medical conditions such as asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, and inflammatory bowel disease. Essentially, they are the most potent anti-inflammatory agents known – and in any disease where inflammation is a major problem steroids work brilliantly (for a while at least).

Steroids can be more accurately called corticosteroids, because the basic building block of all steroids is cortisol. This is one of the natural steroid hormones made within the adrenal glands. It is a stress hormone, which will be produced in much greater amounts under a situation of threat/stress.

So, what happens if cortisol levels are chronically raised? Well, there is a condition called Cushing’s disease. The underlying problem in Cushing’s disease is excess production of cortisol, which can happen for various reasons….that I do not have the time to discuss here.

People with Cushing’s disease develop a range of metabolic problems: high blood sugar levels/type II diabetes, high levels of clotting factors, raised triglycerides, low HDL, high blood pressure, central obesity etc. Production of EPCs also falls. This abnormal metabolic pattern is also seen in those who take a high dose of steroids over a long period of time, where production of EPCs also falls.

Of greatest interest is the fact that people with Cushing’s disease suffer a greatly increased rate of heart disease. Relative risk increased by around 600% – 700% (Or more). People who take steroids long-term have a ~400% increased risk of dying of CHD.

These are not small increases in risk. They are far greater than any of the standard accepted risk factors for cardiovascular disease. In fact, we are talking molehills next to Mount Everest here.

For now, taking the discussion back to those who live near to airports. It is known from a great deal of research that people who suffer long-term negative stress exhibit abnormal cortisol production.  Although it won’t be nearly as extreme as those with Cushing’s, or those taking steroids. They also have an increased risk of dying of heart disease and stroke.

It is known that noise pollution creates long-term negative stress. It is now known that people living next to airports suffer a high level of strokes and heart disease.

Try and use the cholesterol hypothesis to explain the increased risk, and you can’t. Try and use the atherothrombosis hypothesis to explain this phenomenon and, it all fits together without any trouble at all. So, who wins this argument? Virchow, or Rokitansky?

Of course it is not nearly as simple as: stress > increased cortisol secretion > reduce EPC production > atherothrombosis…… But it is one important link in the chain.

More on this, at some point.

The Cholesterol Myth [video] Part 2

Heart of the Matter | The Cholesterol Myth: Dietary Villains and Cholesterol Drug War.
Thursday, 31 October 2013 on ABC 1 (Australia)

Is the role of cholesterol in heart disease really one of the biggest myths in the history of medicine?

For the last four decades we’ve been told that saturated fat clogs our arteries and high cholesterol causes heart disease. It has spawned a multi-billion dollar drug and food industry of “cholesterol free” products promising to lower our cholesterol and decrease our risk of heart disease.

But what if it all isn’t true? What if it’s never been proven that saturated fat causes heart disease?

And what if the majority of patients taking cholesterol lowering drugs won’t benefit from taking these pills?

In a special two part edition of Catalyst, Dr Maryanne Demasi investigates the science behind the claims that saturated fat causes heart disease by raising cholesterol.

The Cholesterol Myth [video] Part 1

The Cholesterol Myth: Dietary Villains and Cholesterol Drug War.
Thursday 24 October on ABC 1 (Australia)

Is the role of cholesterol in heart disease really one of the biggest myths in the history of medicine?

For the last four decades we’ve been told that saturated fat clogs our arteries and high cholesterol causes heart disease. It has spawned a multi-billion dollar drug and food industry of “cholesterol free” products promising to lower our cholesterol and decrease our risk of heart disease.

But what if it all isn’t true? What if it’s never been proven that saturated fat causes heart disease?

And what if the majority of patients taking cholesterol lowering drugs won’t benefit from taking these pills?

In a special two part edition of Catalyst, Dr Maryanne Demasi investigates the science behind the claims that saturated fat causes heart disease by raising cholesterol.

Statins do not help you live longer – or do anything much else for that matter

Sometimes you read a thing quickly, and then you have to read it again to make sure you read it right. Yesterday I was sent a copy of a ‘Patient page’ from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).  The page was from the April 3rd 2013 edition, pp 1419. It is stamped ‘JAMA – copy for your patients’. JAMA is one of the highest impact medical journals in the world.

This patient page states that:

‘One question involves disagreement about whether the statin side effects are merely uncomfortable or actually pose significant health risks. The other question is whether reducing bad cholesterol will actually help you live longer than you otherwise would. Some of this disagreement involves how physicians interpret the results of studies. However, a 2010 analysis combined the results of 11 studies and found that taking statins did not lower the death rate for people who did not have heart disease. If your physician recommends taking a statin, talk to him or her about the risks and benefits for your individual situation.’

For many years I have been ridiculed by colleagues for saying that, if you do not already have established heart disease, statins do not increase your life expectancy. By which I mean that they don’t’ actually work. ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ Is what they exclaim to me. I usually reply that the evidence is pretty clear, and always has been. But I know that they don’t believe me.

Recently, without warning, one of the most influential medical journals in the world turned round and confirmed it. JAMA has stated in black and white that if you do not have established heart disease e.g. angina, previous heart attack, you will not live any longer if you take a statin.

Frankly, I think JAMA will now come under ever increasing bombardment from the ‘experts’ and will end up retracting this statement. In fact, I am willing to bet that they will – having now seen some of the outraged letters sent in. However from time to time the truth – like a small grass shoot growing through a concrete pavement – will emerge. As it did in April.

(I should add, at this point, that around 95% of people who take statins do not have established heart disease.)

However, wrapped up in this issue, is an inevitable argument. I know this argument well, for I have heard it a thousand times. ‘Ah, but it is not just death we are talking about here…. statins prevent non-fatal heart attacks and non-fatal strokes and suchlike. These are terrible things that damage the quality of your life. Medicine is not only about getting people to live longer, it is also about quality of life. Preventing a non-fatal stroke is extremely important, and statins do this.’ In other words, statins don’t make you live longer, but they do provide other, very significant benefits, by preventing Serious Adverse Events (SEAs).

This is a good argument. At least it would be if it were true. However, we have no idea about whether it is true or not. For the simple reasons that the data on SEAs is almost entirely hidden from view. Data on SEAs are considered so commercially sensitive that, in most jurisdictions, pharmaceutical companies won’t release them (and don’t have to release them), even if you ask nicely*.

Before moving onto that issue, I know that I need to explain I am talking about here in a little more detail, and clear up a bit of confusion with the nomenclature. For in the area of adverse events/effects, we have two terms that sound very similar, but mean very different things.

Firstly, there are drug related adverse effects. These are often called ‘side-effects’. But side effects can be good, or bad. For example Viagra was developed as an angina drug but it was found to create enhanced erections, as a side-effect. [You can decide if this is a beneficial side-effect or not]. Viagra also causes headaches. This is also a side-effect, but it would be more accurate to call it a drug related adverse effect.

Drug related adverse effects = negative/unpleasant ‘side-effects’ of a drug

A Serious Adverse Event (SEA) may sound similar to a drug related adverse effect, but it means something completely different. An SEA is a significantly bad thing that a drug might prevent e.g. non-fatal heart attack. Or, it could be something that the drug causes e.g. rhabodmyolysis (muscle breakdown), followed by kidney failure. Which is something that is known to be caused by statins.

SEAs can therefore be good, or bad. Depending on whether they are caused by, or prevented by, the drug. This means that there is absolutely no point in presenting figures on SEAs prevented by statins, without knowing if they caused an equal number of SEAs at the same time.

Completely unsurprisingly, whilst we are bombarded with statistics about how many SEAs are prevented by statins, we have very little idea about how many SEAs are caused by statins. Because in most countries, these data are not released. Its’ commercially sensitive dontcha know. [Damned right it’s commercially sensitive. If the public saw these data they would stop taking half their meds overnight.]

There have, however, been glimpses of SEAs with statins – when the data escaped from the clutches of the pharmaceutical companies. When the Cochrane collaboration fist looked at primary prevention studies, two of the five major studies did report ‘negative’ SEAs (although they did not say what the SEAs were, and still won’t). In these two trials AFCPAS and PROSPER, the SEAs were:

Statin arm:      44.2%
Placebo arm:  43.9%

‘In the 2 trials where serious adverse events are reported, the 1.8% absolute reduction in myocardial infarction and stroke should be reflected by a similar absolute reduction in total serious adverse events; myocardial infarction and stroke are, by definition, serious adverse events. However, this is not the case; serious adverse events are similar in the statin group, 44.2%, and the control group, 43.9% This is consistent with the possibility that unrecognized serious adverse events are increased by statin therapy and that the magnitude of the increase is similar to the magnitude of the reduction in cardiovascular serious adverse events in these populations.’  (read more…)

In short there were slightly more SEAs in those taking statins than in those taking placebo. Slightly more harm than good.

So what do we now know? We know that if you do not have established heart disease, and you take a statin, you will:

  • not live any longer
  • not avoid major Serious Adverse Events

Which means that there is no possible improvement in either the quality, or the quantity, of life. On the other hand there is a good chance that you will suffer from significant adverse effects e.g. muscle pain, joint pain, impotence, stomach upset, rashes etc. etc. On balance therefore we can state that, if you do not have established heart disease, statins provide no benefits on any important outcome. All they can do is to give you adverse effects. ‘Oh boy, that sounds like a great deal doc. Can’t wait, can’t wait, can I get them now?’

*Please see petition that I just put up on my blog. This petition arrived coincidentally as I was writing this article. At present the European Medicines Agency (EMA), will provide SEA data if requested (with huge persistence). The UK authorities will not release these data, nor will the FDA in the states. A recent move by the pharmaceutical industry is now threatening that the EMA will be forced to hide SEAs. ‘Six months ago two US pharmaceutical companies AbbVie and InterMune took a legal action against EMA that has closed down access to all trial data for all drugs for all doctors and researchers anywhere in the world.’

Closed down all access to all trial data for all drugs for all doctors and researchers anywhere in the world.

That statement is worth repeating. Be afraid, be very afraid indeed. And sign the petition please. Oh, and write to your MEP, as I am now doing.