UHN patients given unlicensed drug that led to diabetes, liver dysfunction and one death, study finds

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Canada’s largest hospital permitted patients to suffer “persistent toxicity and adverse effects” resulting in elevated incidents of diabetes and liver dysfunction — along with a death — after being treated with an unlicensed drug for six years, says a co-author of a study being published Wednesday.

Dr. Brenda Gallie, a professor of medical biophysics and ophthalmology at the Hospital for Sick Children, says the new data provide clearevidence that the drug deferiprone — sold as Ferriprox by generic pharmaceutical maker Apotex — poses serious health risks that hospital administrators were told about years ago.

Dr. Nancy Olivieri, left, and her research partner Dr. Brenda Gallie say they brought their concerns about deferiprone to UHN officials as early as 2009.
Dr. Nancy Olivieri, left, and her research partner Dr. Brenda Gallie say they brought their concerns about deferiprone to UHN officials as early as 2009.  (RICK MADONIK / TORONTO STAR)

“These patients were sold a bill of goods that has impacted their health,” she says of patients given deferiprone, a drug used to treat hereditary blood disorders such as thalassemia. “It is a human experiment and I can’t imagine how it went on and on and on.”

The peer-reviewed study, obtained exclusively by the Star, is being published in Public Library of Science Journal. It concludes that deferiprone showed “significant toxicity in most patients” over the six-year study of 41 patients — findings that demand an “urgent, transparent review of current standards of patient protection, informed consent, and medical practice.”

The findings document a 17 per cent incidence of new diabetes and new liver dysfunction in 65 per cent of patients who were given deferiprone between 2009 and 2015. A woman in her 30s died in 2013, 13 months after being placed on the drug, the study found. Only two of the 41 patients fared well on deferiprone, said Gallie, who authored the study with Dr. Nancy Olivieri, a senior scientist at the University Health Network (UHN) who has been in a 22-year legal and academic dispute over the health impacts of deferiprone.