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FDA Reviewing CellCept

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CellCept, a drug used to prevent organ rejection in transplant victims, has been linked to progressive multi-focal leukoencephalopathy, an often fatal neurological disease, prompting the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to announce a review of the drug. In announcing the CellCept safety review, the FDA said that it was infomed by Swiss drug maker Roche last November about reports of 10 cases of progressive multi-focal leukoencephalopathy occurring in patients taking the drug. The FDA also said today that it is reviewing similar risks with Myfortic, a drug made by another Swiss drug maker—Novartis—that is used to prevent kidney transplant rejection.

Christopher Vancheri, a Roche company spokesman, confirmed 10 cases of progressive multi-focal leukoencephalopathy in CellCept patients, adding that over 500,000 patients have used CellCept since 1995, when it was approved in the US. The FDA announced the process to review the reports and consider revised labeling for the medications takes approximately two months. Until then, regulators advise doctors and patients to watch for neurological symptoms. Progressive multi-focal leukoencephalopathy attacks the brain and central nervous system and is usually fatal. Symptoms include vision problems, loss of coordination, and memory loss. According to the FDA, patients who the disease are often permanently disabled.

CellCept—generically known as mycophenolate mofetil—is part of a class of drugs called immunosuppressants and was approved in 1995 to prevent rejection of solid organ transplants, including kidney, heart, and liver. When CellCept is used in with cyclosporine and corticosteroids, it greatly reduces the patient’s immune system from attacking the transplanted organ. As with all immunosuppressants, CellCept carries certain risks, including development of lymphoma and other malignancies and is also linked to an increased risk of developing opportunistic infections and sepsis.

Last October, CellCept was linked to miscarriage and birth defects, prompting the FDA to add a new boxed warning to its label last November. That labeling remains under FDA review. The potential for side effects was considered so great that the FDA advised women of childbearing age to use two methods of birth control before, during, and after CellCept treatment. Meanwhile, European regulators added language about the neurological disease to CellCept packaging and, this February, Roche sent a letter to European doctors, highlighting the labeling changes. The letter stated problems were reported in kidney, heart, and lung transplant patients and the neurological disorder was seen in patients taking the drug for a form of lupus, a CellCept use not approved by regulators.Roche said it is difficult to sort out the role of its drug in the reports since many patients had other diseases and were taking other drugs. According to the Roche letter—which the FDA posted to its Website today, determining the role of the drug in the reports poses some challenges because many patients taking the drug were suffering with other illnesses and also on other drugs, “However, the contributory role of CellCept cannot be excluded.”

A spokeswoman for Novartis said the company is not aware of any instances of the neurological disease in patients taking its drug and plans to cooperate with any labeling changes recommended by regulators.

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