A trial is currently underway in Illinois as a widow seeks to hold pharmaceutical manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline accountable for improper labeling and minimizing a potentially serious side effect of a well-known antidepressant.
Paroxetine is a widely prescribed antidepressant and anti-anxiety drug under the class of drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Paroxetine is most commonly known as the brand name of Paxil, manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).
Since 2012, Wendy Dolin has been engaged in a legal battle against GSK following the suicide of her husband, Stewart Dolin. Wendy says that in the summer of 2010, Stewart was prescribed a generic version of Paxil for anxiety issues related to work. According to Wendy, Stewart Dolin complained of becoming increasingly anxious and restless and was unable to sleep while taking the drug. On July 15, 2010, less than one week after beginning this medication, Stewart committed suicide by walking in front of a train.
Wendy began searching for answers in the wake of her husband's suicide and said she learned that he had been displaying signs of akathisia, a disorder characterized by an individual's inability to relax or sit still. Psychiatrist Joseph Glenmullen said in 2006 that “Patients have described [akathisia] to me as listening to nails scratching on a black board 24/7, or your bones rattling like tuning forks. It is this inner agitation that is by far the most dangerous.” In 2012, Wendy filed a legal complaint against GSK seeking to hold the manufacturer liable for her husband's death. The complaint noted that "a scientist working for another SSRI manufacturer, Pfizer, wrote in a 1998 medical journal article that the suicidal impulses resulting from akathisia may be explained as a feeling that 'death is a welcome result' when the 'acutely discomforting symptoms of akathisia are experienced on top of already distressing disorders.'”
The critical issue in Wendy Dolin's lawsuit is not simply paroxetine itself. It's no secret that lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies are usually complicated under most circumstances, but this case is particularly notable as a tragic example of the gray area of liability when a patient is prescribed a generic drug, as well as the problems between the FDA and drugmakers that exist when it comes to publishing safety labels for patients and doctors.
It's important to distinguish that Stewart Dolin was not prescribed the brand of Paxil, but a generic brand of paroxetine that was manufactured by another company, Mylan. Brent Wisner, Wendy Dolin's attorney, described the issue as a "donut hole of liability" in which both the generic and the original manufacturer deny responsibility. "That's where you have the generic maker on one hand saying, 'We don't know about these risks. We can't be held responsible for them... plus, we can't change the label,'" Wisner said according to an NBC investigative report. Winner added that "the brand name makers are saying, 'Well, we didn't make the pill.'"
Generic drugs are often prescribed in place of specific brands, mainly to save costs, as generic drugs cost far less than brand names on average. In Illinois, where the Dolin family resided, "state pharmaceutical laws actually require such a substitution unless a doctor has advised against it. Some of the few courts that have sided with plaintiffs in generic-drug injury cases have also highlighted this conundrum for generic-drug plaintiffs," according to a Law360 report on Wendy's case.
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Wendy and Wisner claim that the warning label that was given to the generic brand was "factually incorrect and misleading." In their lawsuit, they allege that "the paroxetine label in existence at the time of Stewart Dolin’s death did not warn of the drug’s association with an increased risk of suicidal behavior in adults despite GSK’s knowledge of a statistically significant 6.7 times greater risk in adults of all ages. In fact, the label stated the opposite – that the suicidality risk did not extend beyond the age of 24." Stewart Dolin was close to 57 when taking paroxetine.
The lawsuit alleges that GSK whitewashed the suicide risks of Paxil in its data given to the FDA. The complaint explains that in 1989, GSK''s “Integrated Summary of Safety Information,” required to gain approval from the FDA, included a presentation identifying the number of suicide and suicide attempts during clinical trials. The suit alleges that GSK's summary "skewed the statistical analysis of the data presented and obscured the true risk" by including suicide attempts "of placebo patients that had taken place in the placebo run-in (or wash-out) phase" before the clinical trials began. "Run-in" or "wash-out" refers to a time period of removing any other drugs in a trial participant's system; any "adverse events" that take place during those periods are not appropriate or generally accepted for inclusion in calculations during clinical trials, the suit claims.
The Cook County Record reports that while those warning labels on Paxil and paroxetine were approved by the FDA, GSK said it was not allowed by the FDA to include an additional warning of a "statistically significant increase in the frequency of suicidal behavior in patients treated with paroxetine.” GSK claims that the FDA wanted to maintain homogeneous warnings among all antidepressants.
However, U.S. District Judge James Zagel noted that GSK "never asked for a formal meeting, nor did it seek additional labeling regarding Paxil-specific data" in a February 2016 ruling, and further wrote that "Moreover, GSK never sent a separate supplement and declined the FDA’s invitation for a meeting to discuss the inclusion of … the adult warnings.”
The trial against GSK is in progress and is expected to last a few weeks. Bob Fiddaman, a blogger and author who has written extensively about his own experiences with paroxetine, has been covering the developments of the trial. Fiddaman wrote that a "startling revelation" was unveiled on March 22nd:
Attorneys representing widow Wendy Dolin showed the ratio of Paxil-induced suicidality in adults is a staggering 8.9. It is not 6.7, as previously claimed and reported by Glaxo. The 6.7 figure is astoundingly high in itself, but the 8.9 ratio is flabbergasting!
Plaintiff witness, Dr. David Ross, said this figure is 'astounding.' What you should remember here is that GSK's 1989 drug application for Paxil said the suicidality odds ratio was 2.6.
Fiddaman wrote that Dr. Ross, who worked for the FDA for ten years, offered lengthy testimony. Fiddaman points out that Dr. Ross discussed the problematic relationship between the FDA and drug manufacturers. The FDA relies heavily on the accuracy of the data that is provided by drug companies, which is problematic when the companies present arguable data.
GSK's argument has summarily been that they do not bear liability because the drug that was prescribed to Stewart Dolin was not manufactured by Mylan, not GSK. The company has stated that “we remain consistent in our stance that since GSK did not manufacture or market the generic paroxetine ingested by Mr. Dolin, it should not be held liable in this trial."