USA Today recently reported the development of the first drug marketed towards a specific ethnicity. The breakthrough pill called BiDil is currently being investigated for its potential ability to reduce the death rate and hospitalization of African Americans suffering from heart failure.
Dr. Jay Cohn, a heart specialist at the University of Minnesota is responsible for the drug’s creation. Cohn collaborated with NitroMed, a biotechnology company that serves as the drug’s manufacturer.
Bidil is a combination of two drugs that are used to treat heart failure, isosorbide dinitrate, and hydralazine. Research has shown that African Americans have lower amounts of nitric oxide in which isosorbide dinitrate serves as a donor.
In efforts to demonstrate the effectiveness of the new product, NitroMed conducted a study involving 1,050 African American patients. Half were given ace inhibitors one of the standard medications used to lower blood pressure and treat heart failure. The second half was given Bidil. As a result, 6.2 percent of the patients who used Bidil died versus 10.2 percent. In addition, 16.4 percent of BiDil users were hospitalized as opposed to 24.4 percent of those who used the ace inhibitors.
The Bidil experiment was not extended to whites or other ethnic groups. Previous studies involving whites that received the two drugs separately showed little benefits and this once prevented the Food and Drug Administration from licensing the new drug.
NitroMed currently seeks approval for the pill to be administered by the FDA. With the new results, FDA approval seems likely. However, there are mixed reviews amongst medical officials about the classification of BiDil as an “ethnic drug” specifically for African Americans, the primary sufferers of heart complications.
Gloria C. Lewis, director of Minnesota’s Office of Minority and Multicultural Health supports the development. “When we see something that can close the gap, we need to use it, we need to celebrate it. This is not a race issue; this is a life-and-death issue,” said Lewis.
Dr Augustus Grant, former president of the Black Cardiologist Association also embraces the medical development. Grant said, “Here we have a wonderful trial that shows a clear result and the issue is raised, ‘Why was the trial only done on African Americans?’”
Some officials believe that race is not a factor in determining the overall effectiveness of medicine or other treatments.
Jay Kaufman, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina, studies racial disparities in health care. He said, “There’s no evidence that the results for any therapy are significantly different for African Americans.”
Approximately 5 million Americans are affected by heart failure or cardio vascular disease and more than 50 percent of patients die within five years of diagnosis. African Americans are twice more likely to suffer or die from heart failure than their white counterparts.
According to the United States Census Bureau and the Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 750,000 African Americans have been diagnosed with heart failure. By 2010, this number is expected to climb to approximately 900,000.
For 30 years, Cohn has worked to prove that the combination of the two drugs, now in the form of Bidil could potentially save lives. Cohn believes that whites and other groups could also feel the effects of Bidil, but African Americans in particular could definitely benefit from it.
"I don’t think we serve the medical or social community by trying to disregard differences. We now know that that population, on average, has a dramatic benefit from BiDil. End of story,” said Cohn.
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