Monday, February 13, 2012
How the latest miracle cure for addiction failed to deliver.
PROMETA™: Last seen going down fast, smoke pouring from all engines.
As reported here at Addiction Inbox, a double-blind placebo-controlled evaluation of PROMETA™ by W. Ling and associates, published online last month in the journal Addiction, found that the much-publicized treatment protocol for meth addiction “appears to be no more effective than placebo in reducing methamphetamine use, retaining patients in treatment or reducing methamphetamine craving.” The authors of the journal paper didn’t accuse Hythiam, the company that makes and sells the product, of not telling the truth. They just said that the treatment didn’t work. The study authors did, however, find evidence of “potential financial conflicts of interests among its advocates…”
An earlier CBS News "60 Minutes" news report in 2009 had raised similar questions, but generated a great deal of publicity for PROMETA™. And the only testing available, a small open study from Texas, had shown positive results. Testimonials began mounting, and a few prominent doctors in the addiction field lent their names to the marketing effort. More conservative voices, like Richard Rawson and the University of Pennsylvania’s Tom McClellan, warned that there was insufficient scientific evidence to push forward with the new treatment—but their concerns were swept aside amid the general enthusiasm for a long-sought antidote to the ravages of methamphetamine addiction.
So how did it happen? And what, if anything, does it teach us about the enterprise of addiction research and treatment?
An editorial by Dr. Keith Humphreys of the Stanford University Medical Centers, which accompanied the report of the clinical trial in Addiction, attempted to analyze the saga of how “a former junk bond trader with no medical background raised $150 million in capital to market a combination of three medications (gabapentin, flumazenil and hydroxyzine) as a treatment for methamphetamine addiction.” Bear in mind that only one of the drugs—gabapentin—had ever been involved in clinical trials against addiction, with decidedly mixed results. As for the other ingredients, a prominent neuroscientist who blogs pseudonymously as Neuroskeptic, commented at the time: “What the hell kind of a cocktail is that? Gabapentin—OK, it might reduce anxiety and stabilize mood, although the evidence is poor and if you wanted to do that, there are better drugs. Ditto for hydroxazine. And why you want both of those is unclear. But flumazenil? That doesn't do much if you haven't taken a benzodiazepine. But if it did do anything it would be to antagonize the gabapentin.”
All in all, not a promising analysis.
The three drugs are approved for various uses by the FDA, and there is the rub: Off-label practices allow physicians to prescribe medications for uses other than those listed on the official package insert. As useful as this practice can be, it creates a situation in which a “combination of previously approved medications can be marketed without review as a new treatment protocol, despite the fact that none of the individual medications had any evidence nor were originally approved as a treatment for the condition the new protocol targets.”
Under this directive, Hythiam was free to promote the combination of approved medications as a new addiction treatment advance without any significant testing, Humphreys contends.
If the treatment, in the end, proved to be no better than placebo for meth addiction, what made it seem like such a successful new thing under the sun at the outset? Wishful thinking, Humphreys believes: “Many serious, good-hearted people will be shocked at Ling’s negative results because they believed sincerely… we must not yield to our powerful collective desire to believe before we have hard evidence of effectiveness from disinterested, respected sources. The simpler, faster and more miraculous-seeming the cure, the greater should be our skepticism.”
Furthermore: "As was the case with another would-be ‘miracle cure’—ultra-rapid opiate-detoxification—a manufacturer was able to market an untested treatment protocol to addicted patients…”
Why? Because “off-label use of medications is well-established in medical practice and has significant value in many cases, but a balance must be struck with the risk this creates for evasion of the normal safety and efficacy checks by creators of new treatment protocols."
"We have a huge advantage at this historical moment which was not available to people in prior eras who could not determine whether ‘Dr. Keeley’s Double Chloride of Gold Injections’, ‘Dr. Revaly’s Guaranteed Remedy for the Tobacco Habit’ and ‘Dr. Meeker’s Addiction Antidote’ were effective,” writes Humphreys. Namely, “a well-developed addiction treatment research enterprise." And because of that, we should “point with pride to Ling et.al.’s work as an example of how high-quality science can inform suffering people about what will help them and what will not; and those who set public research budgets need look no further for an example of return on investment.”
HUMPHREYS, K. (2012). What can we learn from the failure of yet another ‘miracle cure’ for addiction? Addiction, 107 (2), 237-239 DOI: 10.1111/j.1360-0443.2011.03652.x
Photo Credit: http://blog.nebraskahistory.org