In less than a month, the FDA will convene a scientific panel to evaluate emerging evidence that some of the most commonly used contraceptives – Beyaz,Gianvi, Loryna, Ocella, Safyral, Syeda, Yasmin, Yaz, Zarah, — have greater risks than other similar products. Patients and their advocates are seeking court permission to have drugmaker’s internal studies released so that FDA can see the full picture.

These drugs all contain the hormone drospirenone, while other contraceptives use a different active ingredient — progestin levonorgestrel. The FDA reports that “all birth control pills pose a risk of blood clots” but a recent British Medical Journal (BMJ) study found that contraceptives containing drospirenone were “associated with a threefold higher risk of non-fatal [deep vein blood clots]” compared to women who do not use hormonal contraception, and twice the risk of competing drugs using a hormone other than drospirenone.

On December 8, an FDA panel will likely look at the body of evidence concerning this BMJ study, and other studies listed on the FDA website. This review might tip the scales enough to add warnings to the drug’s label. Yet it remains to be seen if FDA will see all the documents it should before making a decision.

About 10,000 patients who took Yaz or Yasmin are suing the drug’s manufacturer Bayer for failing to disclose an increased risk of blood clots, and their lawyers have asked the court’s permission to submit to the FDA hearing approximately 50 documents unearthed in that litigation. The lawyers describe these documents as “internal and candid memoranda of clinical trial data and adverse event data not [before] shared with the FDA [by Bayer]”, according to a brief filed in one lawsuit.

Many readers may recall that documents concerning the safety and illegal marketing of the drug Zyprexa, the widely used antipsychotic drug, were released a couple years ago, both by a doctor retained as an expert witness, and later by the Court. This information was invaluable in alerting the public to the increased risks of death when Zyprexa is used to treat vulnerable seniors suffering from dementia. Following the pattern we saw with the pain drug, Vioxx, in 2004 and the diabetes drug, Avandia, in 2010, the Zyprexa documents showed that in the interest of maintaining the sales of their block-buster drugs, drugmakers withheld critical information from the FDA and the public — causing the deaths of tens of thousands of patients, while leaving tens of millions at risk.

The hearing on December 8 is less than a month away. We hope FDA will make sure it sees any studies that Bayer’s scientists and expert consultants did concerning the risks of drospirenone before making a decision on how to best protect the public health.

And there’s a potential conflict-of-interest issue as well. Lawyers for the injured women are concerned that some of the 13 scientific experts on the FDA panel have financial relationships with Bayer. Under the FDA rules, members of scientific advisory panels must disclose their conflicts to the FDA, and must receive a waiver in order to participate. The advisory panel could recommend that the FDA add warnings to the labels, implement other safety protocols, or even to withdraw them from the market—it should be free of industry influence.

The FDA needs complete information to do a good job, and the public needs to know who ultimately participates or votes on the FDA panel to be sure we can trust their final decision. Every day women are barraged with slick TV ads for Yaz and other contraceptives. We deserve more than marketing buzz – we need an unbiased, transparent and scientific evaluation of the drugs that makes sure women are not knowingly put risk.

(Hat tip to Pharmalot)

— Wells Wilkinson, Project Director Prescription Access and Litigation & Marcia Hams, Director, Prescription Access and Quality