A few years ago I was researching an article about Pfizer’s new drug therapies, and I had the privilege of meeting with their top lab scientists in Groton, CT. During these meetings I became aware of a level of daring and scientific expertise that I had rarely experienced in the academic world. If anything, Pfizer’s resources allowed them to amplify their ideas and expedite new discoveries.
Torcetrapib was such a discovery. As the pioneer drug in a class known as CETP (cholesterol ester transfer protein) inhibitors, torcetrapib had been shown previously by Pfizer to raise HDL, or good cholesterol, by more than 60%. Large epidemiological studies have shown that patients with high levels of HDL are less likely to die from heart attacks.
Interest in the CETP gene began back in the 1980s, when it was discovered that mutations to this gene in a group of Japanese patients that caused a high HDL also seemed to prolong life. While subsequent results were mixed, cardiologists around the country were excited about the new drug. And though many had some concerns based on the mixed research on the CETP gene, few suggested the new drugs would be harmful to patients.
Now Pfizer has taken a public relations hit because of its study discovery that the torcetrapib group had a higher death rate than the control group. But the criticism is hardly fair when you consider the pioneer spirit and resources of the company and how this spirit has so often led to great drugs. And since raising HDL cholesterol has been shown to save lives, investigating a drug that raises HDL certainly seemed to be a reasonable undertaking.
While the rate of death from heart disease has fallen 58% since 1960, it has fallen 37% faster since the introduction of the “statin” drugs by Pfizer and others in the 1980s. For every torcetrapib there is a Lipitor improving and saving millions of lives.
Marc Siegel, MD, is an internist and associate professor of medicine at New York University and the author of False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear