Ocrevus: Former Genentech Researcher Speaks Out

Last updated: April 2017

First, let me preface this by saying that I am not anti-Ocrevus. As I’ve stated on these pages any number of times, it is my firmly held belief that MS patient advocates who are fervently “pro” or “anti“ any MS treatment, especially to the extent that they will disparage other treatment options, are doing a disservice to themselves and anybody who listens to them. The simple fact of the matter is that there is no perfect MS treatment; each and every one has its upsides and downsides and even these are mutable depending on the particulars of any individual patient. I’m all for any treatment that offers MS patients a chance to beat back their illness relatively safely and against supposed treatments that are either completely ineffective, dangerous, or blatant rip-offs.

It's my sincere hope that Ocrevus proves to be safe and even more effective than was shown in its clinical trials. Discretion is the better part of valor, though, and it's prudent to be wary of any drug new to the market. We've seen many drugs pulled after FDA approval because of unforeseen side effects, and have also seen other drugs that in time proved more successful than was initially expected. I've written extensively on the complicated history as well as the promise of Ocrevus, which you can read by (clicking here).

During my 14 years as an MS patient, I’ve learned to be highly critical of any medical news that I read or see in nonmedical newspapers or TV shows. These outlets generally overhype any treatment or medical discovery being discussed, and are often reported by journalists who don’t have the depth of background necessary to fully question the PR put out by the drug and medical device manufacturers. I’ve oftentimes wanted to throw things at my TV set when so-called experts state “facts” that are inaccurate, deceptive, and sometimes just flat out wrong.

The mainstream press has been heralding Ocrevus as a tremendous breakthrough, practically falling all over themselves with hyperbole in describing the revolutionary nature of this drug. The truth of the matter is that the real breakthrough came about a decade ago, when the much older drug Rituxan was first trialed on MS patients. The success of the Rituxan trials on relapsing MS shook the foundations of how multiple sclerosis was viewed by most researchers. Rituxan and Ocrevus both target immune system B cells; previous to the successful Rituxan trials, MS was generally thought to be mediated strictly by immune system T cells.

Ocrevus and Rituxan are made by the same drug company, Genentech. Even though the early-stage Rituxan relapsing MS trials were successful, Genentech chose to develop a newer molecule, now called Ocrevus, and abandon further research on Rituxan for MS. This despite the fact that Rituxan had a long record of relative safety in its original use treating non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and trials on Ocrevus would have to start from square one. The reasons behind this decision remain cloudy to this day, and include many that rely on absolutely legitimate scientific rationale. But, prominent among the reasons that must be considered is that Rituxan was due to come off patent in 2015, seriously limiting the profit potential of the drug.

On that note, today I came across a terrific article on the website Health News Review (click here). The piece discusses the pros and cons of the media’s coverage of Ocrevus, exploring issues such as the pharmaceutical company’s PR spin, the drug’s pricing, and the complexities surrounding its similarity to Rituxan. The article features MS neurologist and research scientist Dr. Annette M. Langer-Gould, a former employee of Genentech who worked on the development of Rituxan and Ocrevus. Her perspectives on these two drugs and on the introduction of Ocrevus are quite enlightening. Here’s an excerpt from the article, the whole of which you can and should read by (clicking here):

The Times and STAT’s piece on Ocrevus included statements from sources who hailed the drug approval, calling it a “big deal,” a “significant improvement,” “quite stunning,” and a “major therapeutic advance,” among other accolades.

But those compliments also could be applied to Rituxan, said Langer-Gould, who added that these “major therapeutic advances” actually happened more than a decade ago. But few benefited because Roche delayed Rituxan’s development and then eventually stopped it altogether. It’s misleading to paint Roche and its scientists as heroic now, she said.

“When they stopped Rituxan’s development, it was the main reason I left Genentech,” she said. “I told them ‘you’re just withholding a highly effective treatment for MS patients for another decade’–and that is exactly what happened.”

This article is so good that it speaks for itself, but I would like to add a few thoughts on a factor which hasn’t been much discussed in regards to the launch of Ocrevus. As we all should be aware by now, it’s common practice for drug companies to funnel payments directly to doctors who prescribe their drugs through the use of “consulting fees”, “honoraria, and other vehicles. According to the website Dollars For Docs (click here), Genentech, the maker of Ocrevus, leads the list of companies that engage in these practices, having doled out to doctors an eye-popping $727 million between August 2013 and December 2015. To put this in perspective, the next company on the list is on the hook for $167 million during the same period.

I’ve heard from several of my neurologist contacts that Genentech has been quite copious with its payments to MS doctors in advance of the Ocrevus launch. There is absolutely nothing illegal about this, and there is no saying how much such payments influence any individual doctor, but drug companies wouldn’t engage in these practices if they weren’t seeing a healthy return on investment. MS Neuros are among the largest recipients of pharmaceutical company monies, a fact that must be kept in mind by well-informed patients when discussing potential therapies. The Dollars for Docs website (click here) allows patients to search for any individual physician and see how much that doctor received from pharmaceutical companies during the time period mentioned above. I’d encourage all patients to take advantage of this resource by looking up their own physician to better inform themselves of what could be a motivating factor in their doctor’s decision-making practice.

If your doctor seems to have taken an inordinate amount of money from Big Pharma, don’t be shy about asking them the how’s and why’s of what you’ve learned. It’s your health that’s at stake here, and you have every right to ask as many questions as needed to make informed decisions on your course of treatment. If your doctor refuses to give you those answers, or answers in ways that leave you uncomfortable, I’d say it’s time to find a new doctor. Remember, your doctor works for you, you don’t work for your doctor.

Gee, I may just have lost a few of my neurologist friends…

This article was originally published on Marc’s website on 04/04/17 and is being featured on MultipleSclerosis.net with his permission.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The MultipleSclerosis.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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