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  • 12/09/2015

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New Compounded Drug Renews Safety Concerns

Last week, Express Scripts announced it would begin processing prescriptions for Imprimis Pharmaceuticals’ drug compound for patients suffering from toxoplasmosis in response to a recent price hike by the makers of the only FDA-approved medication for toxoplasmosis, Daraprim.

“We believe we now have a safe, high-quality and extremely cost-effective way to provide access to a Daraprim alternative,” said Dr. Steve Miller, Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer of Express Scripts, one of the country’s largest pharmacy benefit managers (PBM) with over $100 billion in annual revenue.

But the safety and efficacy of compounded drugs have raised questions in the healthcare community and among regulators, and at least two of Imprimis’ compounding facilities have been cited by the FDA for Common Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMP) violations.

Back in 2012, a meningitis outbreak that sickened more than 700 people and killed at least 50, was traced to a compounding facility in Massachusetts setting off a wave of heightened concern and regulatory oversight. Separately, Imprimis’ facilities in New Jersey and Southern California (July 2014 and June 2015) have been issued letters from the FDA citing violations that could call into question the safety and efficacy of the drugs compounded there.

Imprimis says that they did not own the facilities at the time of the violations. The California facility was acquired earlier this year and has not yet been reinspected. The New Jersey facility was inspected in September, and Imprimis says there were “three minor observations noted on the report, all of which have been responded to with no further comments from the FDA.”

But Peter Pitts, former FDA associate commissioner and president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, expressed concern, “just because a facility changes ownership doesn’t mean that existing quality problems can be discounted.”

In testimony before the House Energy & Commerce Committee, Dr. Scott Gottleib, resident fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, said that compounded drugs let “physicians customize drugs to individual patients,” noting that “traditional pharmacy compounding is performed on a small scale.”

According to the FDA’s website, compounded drugs are not generally approved by the FDA and therefore the “FDA does not verify the safety, or effectiveness of compounded drugs.” Additionally, the FDA warns, “[t]here can be health risks associated with compounded drugs that do not meet federal quality standards. Compounded drugs made using poor quality practices may be sub- or super‑potent, contaminated, or otherwise adulterated. Additional health risks include the possibility that patients will use ineffective compounded drugs instead of FDA-approved drugs that have been shown to be safe and effective.”

When Congress passed a new law in 2013 that provided the FDA with greater authority over compounding facilities, Dr. Janet Woodcock, director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, expressed some concern that the law didn’t go far enough. “While the new law doesn’t provide the FDA with all the additional authority it sought, these provisions are definitely progress,” she said.

Now with this latest announcement from Express Scripts, Imprimis is set to provide patients a compounded drug comprised of two FDA-approved drugs, pyrimethamine (the active drug in Daraprim) and leucovorin, even though the two have never been approved by the FDA to be used together.

The president of research and development for the manufacturer of Daraprim, Turing Pharmaceuticals, Dr. Eliseo Salinas said, “Daraprim remains the only FDA-approved treatment for toxoplasmosis encephalitis when used conjointly with a sulfonamide. Patients and physicians are likely to assume the compounded product is as safe and effective as the FDA-approved drugs pyrimethamine and leucovorin, even though its safety and efficacy profile is unknown.”

Mark Baum, the CEO of Imprimis, questioned that characterization. “The idea that FDA is not involved in nearly the entire drug supply chain of what is produced by our company is just simply not true.” He says the partnership with Express Scripts speaks to the safety of their practices. “Express Scripts is not going to partner with a company that does things the wrong way,” explains Baum. He says Imprimis is now in talks with other leading PBMs, and these companies won’t partner with a compounder that is putting patients at risk.

Pitts, offered words of warning for doctors treating patients with compounded drugs. “Physicians are not pharmacologists. They do not take medical school courses in drug compounding. And since this is not their area of expertise, they should not be deemed ‘experts’ and asked to make a therapeutic choice.”

He added, “the FDA approves innovator and generic medicines based on the benefit/risk/quality equation. It’s a dangerous precedent for a PBM [Express Scripts] to decide on its own to use cost as the sole factor in reimbursement policy. It is irresponsible at best and dangerous at worst.”

There also remains some question as to the legality of Imprimis distributing its unapproved compounded drug widely. Gottleib, who many consider a potential nominee for senior FDA position should a Republican win the White House, said later in his testimony, “but once pharmacies begin manufacturing and shipping medicines on a wide scale, and do so in a way that isn’t in response to a valid prescription, these firms often become ‘drug manufacturers’ and fall squarely under the FDA’s extensive authority.”

A spokesperson for the FDA declined to comment when asked about the Express Scripts-Imprimis announcement and the use of a compounded drug when an FDA-approved drug is available.

Baum argues that an unintended consequence of current policy is to encourage drug companies to engage in monopolistic behavior for some drugs that have no generic competitor, in part because it is so difficult to get new drugs approved by the FDA. “I really believe the future of compounding is in 503B outsourcing facilities. It is in making as many drugs that are compounded as possible,” Baum said.

However, Pitts, the former FDA associate commissioner, said: “The way to drive prices down is not to promote the unapproved use of unapproved compounded medicines. A more effective route is to inject competition into the marketplace. Competition, in this case, coming from additional FDA-approved generic pyrimethamine products.”


Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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