Health·Second Opinion

How the media almost missed your newest organ and questions about drug prices

Second Opinion is a vital dose of the week's news in health and medicine from reporter Kelly Crowe and CBC Health.

Plus new treatments for our four-legged friends, in this week's health newsletter

The University of Limerick's J. Calvin Coffey argued in a November paper that the mesentery should be considered an organ, but the story didn't make international headlines until this week. (Alan Place/University of Limerick)

This week, we have details on a David-and-Goliath battle shaping up over sugary drinks. We also look at how the media "discovered" a "discovery." Also, questions about drug prices and industry practices, as well as how a controversial Big Pharma exec earned more than any other CEO in Canada.

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Sugary marketing on trial

A small non-profit is taking on two beverage industry giants. The Praxis Project filed a lawsuit in a California federal court alleging the Coca-Cola Company and the American Beverage Association have been engaged in a campaign to deceive consumers about the health risks of sugary drinks.

The 40-page complaint accuses the organizations of covertly funding and publicizing biased research and running false and misleading advertising campaigns. The lawyer representing Praxis compared the practices with those used by the tobacco industry until the late 1990s.

How the media almost missed a new organ

The mesentery is a fatty membrane that holds the intestines in place. A recent review of the research suggests it should be classified as an organ. (J. Calvin Coffey and D. Peter O'Leary/University of Limerick)

There was a lot of buzz this week about the "discovery" of a new human organ. It's called the mesentery, and it's a fatty membrane that holds the intestines in place. It's always been there, but it was previously thought to be a few fragmented structures. Now an Irish researcher says that it's one continuous structure — and argues that makes it our 79th organ.

But you almost didn't hear about it. The paper came out a couple of months ago, in the November issue of The Lancet's journal Gastroenterology & Hepatology. Ireland heard about it, but outside of the Emerald Isle, it was completely missed.

That prompted the University of Limerick to issue another press release. But it came out right before the holidays — so again, nothing. Then this week, one reporter stumbled across the press release and put out the story (it seems like The Independent was first), and finally the world took notice. A quick Google search shows more than 2,000 news stories have been posted since Monday.

'Inappropriate business conduct' at Alexion

Alexion Pharmaceuticals, the maker of Soliris, one of the world's most expensive drugs, is back in the news. This week, Alexion announced the results of its investigation into an accounting scandal, after a former employee revealed that staff had manipulated sales to enhance financial reports. It's called "pulling in" — when customers are pressured to put in their drug orders early to meet financial targets.

In this case, sales that would have shown up in 2016 were pulled in to be reflected in the 2015 end-of-year report. An internal company audit confirmed there had been "inappropriate business conduct" but concluded there was no need to change the company's financial reports. Soliris is considered an "orphan drug" used to treat several rare diseases at a price of more than $500,000 per patient, per year. 

Soliris has been called one of the world's most expensive drugs. (CBC)

Read more on our earlier investigation into how Alexion sets the sky-high price tag for Soliris.

When is an orphan really an orphan?

Orphan drug laws were designed to make it profitable for companies to develop drugs for tiny groups of patients with rare diseases. But increasingly the rules are being used to justify high prices and increased patent protection for cancer drugs, says Dalhousie University Prof. Matthew Herder in a commentary published this week.

It's called "salami slicing," and the commentary says companies are slicing cancer into specific subsets to qualify for preferential patent protection and other drug approval advantages designed to speed rare drug development. At the same time, truly neglected health issues, like poverty, don't attract research dollars. He calls for a redefinition of what is truly an orphan issue in health care.

Are new cancer drugs better?

New cancer drugs are increasing overall survival by an average of about 3.5 months. That's the finding from a study reviewing 62 cancer drugs approved between 2003 and 2013. Less than half increased survival beyond three months. And a third of those drugs lacked evidence that they extended survival better than existing treatments. This analysis in the BMJ discusses the challenges and ethics of high priced cancer drugs.

Best-paid CEO in Canada? Ex-head of Valeant

Former Valeant Pharmaceuticals CEO Michael Pearson topped the list of highest paid executives in 2015. (Ryan Remiorz/ Canadian Press)

Michael Pearson, the former CEO of Valeant Pharmaceuticals, earned more than any other CEO in Canada in 2015. A year later, the company's stock price plunged after controversy over drug pricing, accusations of gouging from U.S. lawmakers, allegations of improper sales practices, and the arrest of a company executive on fraud charges.

Still, a study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives showed that in 2015, Pearson earned $182.9 million in total compensation — most of it in company shares. That was much more than the average CEO compensation of $9.5 million, which was still a historic high, and 193 times as much as the average Canadian worker earns.

Same data, different answer

Dr. Nav Persaud has spent years investigating the evidence behind the popular morning sickness drug Diclectin. He tracked down the original unpublished data used when the drug was approved in the 1970s and reanalyzed it in a paper published this week. His conclusion? The data used to approve the drug doesn't hold up under scrutiny.

It's not unsafe, Persaud said, but there's no solid evidence that it works to relieve nausea during pregnancy. He's calling on Health Canada to reconsider its approval of Diclectin. Health Canada said it continues to support the use of the drug.

Canine cancer treatment

You could call it our most paw-pular story of the week. Our Kas Roussy visited the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph, where researchers are investigating new medical treatments for sick pets. A current study aims to stop the spread of an aggressive form of cancer. Scientists hope what they find out could help us owners, too.

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