Study: J&J ($JNJ) heart drug is safe but ineffective

Talk about a backhanded compliment for Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ). A big new trial of its congestive heart failure treatment Natrecor trumped worries that the drug might be linked to kidney failure and death. That's the good part; the trial also showed, however, that Natrecor is a mediocre performer at best.

According to data presented at the American Heart Association meeting, 15 percent of patients treated with Natrecor (nesiritide) for shortness of breath got significant relief after six hours, compared with 13.4 percent of patients treated with placebo. At the end of 24 hours, 30.4 percent of Natrecor patients were better, compared with 27.5 percent of placebo. And at the end of 30 days, 3.6 percent of Natrecor patients died compared with 4 percent of placebo patients.

"There is no evidence that [Natrecor] is associated with an increased risk of mortality," Harvard cardiologist Eugene Braunwald said at a news conference (as quoted by the Los Angeles Times). "The less good news is that the trial provides very little evidence that a physician would improve the outcome of a patient who is receiving good standard care [by using it]."

Meanwhile, a different trial found that off-label use of Natrecor for mild heart failure wasn't effective, either. Already, Natrecor sales have dropped to about $100 million annually from a high of $230 million on those safety concerns. Will the drug suffer even more on this new data? Some doctors told the Wall Street Journal that Natrecor will still be useful for some patients, depending upon individual breathing symptoms, and now they don't have to worry about safety. So only time will tell.

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