This week, the Archives of Internal Medicine published four (four!) articles assaulting the legitimacy and the importance of the JUPITER trial, a landmark clinical study published in 2008, which showed that certain apparently healthy patients with normal cholesterol levels had markedly improved cardiovascular outcomes when taking a statin drug.
Superficially, at least, the JUPITER study appears to have been pretty straightforward. Nearly 18,000 men and women from 26 countries who had “normal” cholesterol levels but elevated C-reactive protein (CRP) levels were randomized to receive either the statin drug Crestor, or a placebo. CRP is a non-specific marker of inflammation, and an increased CRP blood level is thought to represent inflammation within the blood vessels, and is a known risk factor for heart attack and stroke. The study was stopped after a little less than two years, when the study’s independent Data Safety Monitoring Board (DSMB) determined that it would be unethical to continue. For, at that point, individuals taking the statin had a 20% reduction in overall mortality, a dramatic reduction in heart attacks, a 50% reduction in stroke, and a 40% reduction in venous thrombosis and pulmonary embolism. All these findings were highly statistically significant.
This study is noteworthy because it is the first large randomized trial to show that taking a statin can markedly reduce the incidence of some very nasty cardiovascular outcomes in people who are considered to have “normal” cholesterol levels. (Notably, typical LDL cholesterol levels among primitive hunting/gathering cultures is around 50 mg/dL, instead of the 100 – 120 mg/dL we consider to be normal. These primitive folks have an extremely low incidence of cardiovascular disease, so maybe humans’ optimal cholesterol level is much lower than we now think. On the other hand, the low risk of cardiovascular disease among hunters/gatherers may instead be related to the fact that many of them are consumed by various species of carnivores before they’re 30.)
To be sure, the JUPITER trial was far from perfect. Because of its design, it could not (and did not) tell us whether the beneficial outcome is specific to Crestor, or is a class effect of all statins (which seems very likely). It did not tell us whether reducing CRP levels is itself beneficial, or even whether using CRP as a screening tool is actually helpful. (The people enrolled in this trial tended to have several other risk factors, such as being overweight, having metabolic syndrome, and smoking, and it is not clear how much additional risk elevated CRP levels really added in this population.) And this trial did not tell us the risks of lifelong, or even very long-term, Crestor therapy.
But JUPITER did tell us something that is very useful to know, and with a very high degree of statistical surety: Giving Crestor to patients similar to the ones enrolled in this study can be expected to result in significantly and substantially improved cardiovascular outcomes, and in a relatively short period of time.
If medicine were practiced the way it ought to be – where the doctor takes the available evidence, as imperfect as it always is, and applies it to each of her individual patients – then the incompleteness of answers from the JUPITER trial would present no special problems. After all, doctors never have all the answers when they help patients make decisions. So, in this case the doctor would discuss the pros and cons of statin therapy – the risks, the potential benefits, and all the quite important unknowns – and place the decision in the perspective of what might be gained if the patient instead took pains to control their weight, exercise, diet, smoking, etc. At the end of the day, some patients would insist on avoiding drug therapy at all costs; others would insist on Crestor and nothing else; yet others would choose to try a much cheaper generic statin; and some would even opt (believe it or not) for a trial of lifestyle changes before deciding on statin therapy. In other words, there is a range of reasonable options given the limitations of our knowledge, as there often is in clinical medicine. As time goes by, more scientific evidence is often brought to bear and clinical decisions can become more informed. But whatever the state of the evidence, doctors and patients can generally get by without violating too severely any ethical or medical precepts that would cause objective and neutral observers to complain very much.
But in recent years, and especially now, as we bravely embark on our new healthcare system, this is not how doctors will practice medicine. Instead, they will practice medicine by guidelines. These guidelines (which, in modern medical parlance, is a euphemism for “directives”) are to be handed down from panels of experts, identified and assembled by members of the executive branch of the federal government.
And this makes the stakes very high when it comes to a clinical trial like JUPITER. For guidelines do not permit a range of actions tailored to fit individual patients (consistent with the uncertainties inherent in the results of any clinical trial). Instead, guidelines will seek to take one of two possible positions. That is, under a paradigm of medicine-by-guidelines, the results of clinical trials generally cannot be permitted to remain imperfect or nuanced or subject to individual application, but must be resolved by a central panel of government-issue experts into a binary system – yes (do it) or no (don’t do it). In the case of JUPITER, the guidelines must decide whether or not to recommend Crestor to patients like the ones enrolled in the study, at a potential cost of several billion dollars a year. It should be obvious that the answer which would be more pleasant to the ends of the central authority, and by a large margin, would be: No, don’t adopt the JUPITER results into clinical practice.
However, the expert panels which are called for by our new healthcare legislation have not been formulated yet, and we are still operating under the “old” rules. So, still subject to all the duress which is created by unfortunately-resolved clinical trials like this one, the FDA, somewhat reluctantly, approved the use of Crestor for JUPITER-like patients in late 2009. That approval, of course, is subject to review by the new expert panels, whenever they are assembled.
This, DrRich submits for your consideration, is likely what instigated the almost violently anti-JUPITER issue of the Archives this week. DrRich theorizes that what we’ve got here is a bunch of wannabe federally-sanctioned experts, auditioning for positions on the expert panels. What better way to get the Fed’s attention than to let them know that you are of the appropriate frame of mind to assiduously seek out scientific-sounding arguments to discount the straightforward and compelling, but fiscally unfortunate, results of a well-known clinical trial?
Of the four papers appearing in this week’s Archives, three are more-or-less legitimate academic articles that make reasonable points, but do no harm to the main result of JUPITER. The fourth is a straightforward polemic, which has no place in a peer-reviewed medical journal, and whose very presence, DrRich believes, very strongly suggests that the editors of the Archives themselves must be auditioning for the Fed’s expert panel.
So as not to bore his readers any more than necessary, DrRich will make short work of the three reasonably legitimate articles in this issue. One pointed out that JUPITER did not tease out the real importance of CRP levels, or whether lowering those levels is useful. This is true, but that fact does not touch the main conclusion of JUPITER. Another article was a meta-analysis which incorporated several other primary prevention trials using statins, and concluded that there is no overall benefit to statins in primary prevention patients. Aside from the usual problems inherent in meta-analyses, a) the JUPITER study looked at a specific population of primary prevention patients not addressed by these other studies, and b) since JUPITER is the first study to show a benefit in using statins for primary prevention, it is a foregone conclusion that if you assemble enough of the previous, negative studies and lump them together with JUPITER in a meta-analysis, you will be able to dilute the results of JUPITER sufficiently to achieve an overall negative result. Actually doing such a meta-analysis, then, is merely an exercise in math, not in revelation.
The third article criticized the JUPITER DSMB for stopping the trial earlier than originally planned. The DSMB, however, had no real choice in the matter – ethically or legally – given the striking statistical significance of the benefit seen with Crestor. When a patient signs an informed consent agreement to participate in a clinical trial, part of that “contract,” a part required by law, is the statement to the effect that if information comes to light during the course of the study that might impact a patient’s willingness to continue participating, that information must be made available. The fact that the Crestor branch of the study was found to have markedly improved survival, fewer strokes and heart attacks, etc., than the placebo branch, clearly constitutes such information. Stopping the study when they did was not “premature;” continuing the study would have been illegitimate. This is why independent DSMBs exist in the first place – to protect the rights and welfare of the research subjects under the fiduciary agreement that comprises informed consent.
The fourth article is more striking (and more fun) than the other three. Interestingly, it is categorized by the Archives as an “Original Investigation,” despite the fact that it describes no investigation of any kind whatsoever – original or derivative. It merely revisits the data from JUPITER (in a spectacularly biased manner), and offers a spate of ad hominem attacks, alleging bias to the point of corruption, without any supporting evidence, against JUPITER’s sponsor, its investigators, and most astoundingly, the chair of the DSMB (who is a well known and highly respected figure, especially known and revered for his complete objectivity and lack of bias). If such an article has any place at all in a peer-reviewed medical journal – which DrRich doubts – it ought to be clearly labeled as an opinion piece, and not as a piece of original research. Whatever it may be, it’s not that.
But the most delicious aspect of this fourth article is that two of its authors, including its lead author, are members of a fringe medical group known as The International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics (THINCS), whose stated mission is to “oppose” the notion that high cholesterol and animal fat play a role in cardiovascular disease. Members of THINCS also take an extraordinarily strong position opposing statins for any clinical use whatsoever. (One might actually assume that, since JUPITER shows that cardiovascular outcomes can be improved by statins in people with normal cholesterol levels, the THINCS would embrace the study as evidence that perhaps cholesterol is not as important as it’s cracked up to be. But apparently, this argument is completely negated by the fact that statins were the vehicle for making it. Many in the anti-statin crowd would object to statins even if they were proven to cure heart disease, cancer, baldness, and obesity AND produced fine and durable erections upon demand.)
The best part of all this is that the astounding anti-cholesterol, anti-statin bias of the authors was not disclosed in their article – whose main thrust, again, was to criticize the disclosed biases of the JUPITER investigators.
The excellent Pharmalot blog noted this irony, and contacted Rita Redberg (editor of the Archives) and Michel de Lorgeril (THINCS-master and prime author of the fourth article) to ask them why the association with THINCS was not disclosed.
“I’m not clear this is an undisclosed conflict. The policy mentions a personal relationship that could influence one’s work. I think that could be a big stretch. My initial impression is the group has an intellectual message, but doesn’t fit as a personal relationship that could effect the authors’ work.”
“[While it is] very important to disclose financial [emphasis DrRich's] conflicts of interest that can influence our way of working and thinking about cholesterol and statins, there is so far no obligation to provide a CV each time we publish any thing…May I underline the fact that being a member of THINCS – not a group of terrorists, mainly a club of very kind retired scientists with whom I have interesting and open discussion – is not a conflict of interest?”
DrRich may be old fashioned, but he thinks that being a member of an “out there” group like THINCS, which appears to advance selected and distorted data on its website aimed at furthering its stated mission of “opposing” (not investigating or questioning) the cholesterol hypothesis and the use of statins, might make one prone to a bit of bias when writing a broadside critiquing a study like JUPITER, and loudly criticizing anyone associated with that study for their bias. This sort of bias (demonstrably rooted in a willingness to select/ignore/distort data in order to make a preconceived point) is likely to be as strong as any that might accompany, for instance, receiving a stipend from a statin company for participating in clinical research. Membership in THINCS may not preclude one from writing such an article, but DrRich thinks the association at least ought to be disclosed, just as financial relationships must be disclosed.
DrRich has a hard time explaining how this can happen with a prestigious medical journal like the Archives. But like Sherlock Holmes says, when you have eliminated the impossible (such as, the idea that this article deserved to be published in its current form), whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
And this is why DrRich can only conclude that several of the authors appearing in this week’s issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, along with its editor, are in the mode of ingratiating themselves to the sundry officials and czars within the Obama administration who will be assembling the expert medical panels, those panels which will be making the momentous decisions that will determine the flow of hundreds of billions of dollars, and (forgive me) of life and death.
We wish them the best of luck in their audition, and will be monitoring the memberships of the new panels with interest, to see if any of our new friends are ultimately successful.
DrRich critiques more arguments for withholding Crestor here.
de Lorgeril M, Salen P, Abramson J, et al. Cholesterol lowering, cardiovascular diseases, and the rosuvastatin-JUPITER controversy. A critical reappraisal. Arch Intern Med. 2010; 170:1032-1036.
Kaul S, Morrissey RP, Diamond GA. By Jove! What is a clinician to make of JUPITER? Arch Intern Med. 2010; 170:1073-1077.
Ray KK, Seshasai SRK, Erqou S, et al. Statins and all-cause mortality in high-risk primary prevention. A meta-analysis of 11 randomized controlled trials involving 65 229 participants. Arch Intern Med. 2010; 170:1024-1031.
Green L A. Cholesterol-lowering therapy for primary prevention. Still much we don’t know. Arch Intern Med. 2010; 170:1007-1008.
DrRich explains it all in, Fixing American Healthcare – Wonkonians, Gekkonians and the Grand Unification Theory of Healthcare.