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The McClatchy Co.

Local News Friday, January 23, 2004

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Andy Burriss / The Herald
Family and supporters of Christopher Pittman claim adverse effects of Paxil and Zoloft, shown above, led him to kill his grandparents when he was 12. A national medical group said in a report this week the medicine does not increase suicide attempts.
Report casts doubt on drug, suicide link

By Jason Cato, The Herald The Herald
(Published January 23 2004)

A national medical group has taken a shot at what likely will be the defense of a Chester County boy charged with double murder by claiming antidepressants do not increase suicide risk in children.

The statement comes from the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology. After reviewing clinical trials of more than 2,000 youth, an ACNP task force said it found no statistically significant increases in suicide attempts, suicidal thoughts or self-harm caused by antidepressants classified as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs.

The task force cautioned its findings are preliminary. A full report will not be released until spring or summer.

Other researchers are adamant that a link exists between SSRIs and suicide. Some have said the trigger causing suicide attempts can lead to violent behavior. They say these side effects are not experienced by all SSRI patients, just a small number believed to be less than 5 percent.

Family and supporters of Christopher Pittman claim adverse effects of Paxil and Zoloft led him to kill his grandparents and burn their house down when he was 12. The bodies of Joe Frank Pittman and Joy Roberts Pittman were found in the rubble of the rural Chester County home on Nov. 29, 2001. Christopher, now 14, faces charges as an adult and could spend life in prison if convicted.

Many in the legal and medical fields fired back at the task force. They claim the findings come from scientists closely tied to a drug industry bent on warping public perception before a Food and Drug Admin-istration hearing on the effects of antidepressants in children. A FDA advisory panel will meet Feb. 2 in Bethesda, Md.

Last year, U.S. and United Kingdom drug regulatory agencies began looking into a possible link between children on SSRIs and suicide when British drug giant GlaxoSmithKline, maker of Paxil, published summaries of nine clinical trials. The studies showed children given Paxil were about three times more likely to consider or attempt suicide than those given a placebo.

ACNP task force co-chair Dr. J. John Mann called evidence linking SSRIs to suicide "weak."

In addition to Paxil and Zoloft, SSRIs include Celexa, Effexor, Lexapro, Luvox and Prozac. They work by blocking cells from reabsorbing serotonin, a mood-altering chemical, once released in the brain. In Decem-ber, the British government all but banned doctors from prescribing SSRIs to depressed children because of concerns about the possible SSRI/suicide link. The lone exception was Prozac, the only FDA-approved SSRI for treating depression in patients younger than 18. All SSRIs, however, are widely prescribed to children.

Dr. Graham Emslie, task force co-chair and a psychiatry professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, claimed the potential benefits of SSRIs outweigh their risk.

"The most likely explanation for the episodes of attempted suicide while taking SSRIs is the underlying depression, not the SSRIs," he stated in the release.

In a New York Times article published in August, however, he said he knew of negative SSRI studies involving children that have been withheld by drug companies. Emslie himself was a researcher in four Paxil studies.

Mann, a psychiatry professor at New York's Columbia University medical school, served as a medical expert for Glaxo in a Wyoming wrongful death suit. Glaxo settled an appeal in 2001 after a jury blamed Paxil for 80 percent of a murder/suicide and awarded the family $6.4 million.

Neither Emslie nor Mann could be reached for comment.

Of the 10 doctors on the ACNP task force, six have direct affiliations with drug manufacturers. Two task force members were added last week to the FDA's psychopharmacologic drugs advisory committee.

Last year, task force member Dr. Karen Wagner published the findings of a Zoloft study funded by drug maker Pfizer. Wagner has been criticized for failing to include data on patients who dropped out of the study. Even with that, the results showed Zoloft to be only 10 percent more effective than a sugar pill.

Dr. David Healy, director of the U.K.'s North Wales department of psychological medicine, criticized the task force for including scientists who've conducted favorable SSRI studies paid for by drug companies.

"This is likely to be one of the most infamous articles of all time," Healy said of the report. "I'd say many of this panel have quite a bit to feel awkward about."

Attorneys with Baum Hedlund, a Los Angeles law firm that specializes in cases against drug companies, referred to the task force -- which admitted that it has not gained access to a "substantial amount of data" from the FDA and drug companies -- as "drug company hacks."

"They admit they don't have access to all the data, but they're making these broad statements," said attorney Karen Barth Menzies. "It's like a measure of damage control in advance. Their timing is obviously intentional."

Ann Tracy, head of the International Coalition for Drug Awareness, said the timing was an attempt to make the FDA hearing "seem like a waste of time."

"This is just business as usual, even while people are dying. What happened to Christopher Pittman is happening all over the nation," Tracy said.

Dr. Joseph Glenmullen, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School, said there's no question that SSRIs can drive some patients to attempt or think about suicide. He said the ACNP is "trotting out junk science."

"I don't think it makes much sense for the ACNP to make these statements," Glenmullen said. "I find them useless and unproductive."

The nonprofit ACNP gets some revenue from unrestricted educational grants from the drug industry, though it stated that no financial support from that industry went to the task force.

Contact Jason Cato at 329-4071 or


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