Questions remain about new drug for hot flashes
Vascomotor symptoms (VMS) is the medical term for hot flashes associated with menopause. You are going to hear a lot more about it because a company has a new drug to sell. Here is what you need to know.
Menopause marks the end of a woman’s reproductive capacity. Normal hormonal production associated with that monthly cycle becomes erratic and finally ceases. For some women the transition can be relatively brief with only modest symptoms, while for others the body's “thermostat” in the brain is disrupted and they experience hot flashes and other symptoms that can disrupt daily activity. Lifestyle modification and drugs such as hormone therapy can provide some relief, but women at risk for cancer are advised not to use them and other women choose not to do so.
Fezolinetant, sold by Astellas Pharma Inc. under the product name Veozah™, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on May 12 to treat hot flashes associated with menopause. It is the first in a new class of drugs called neurokinin 3 receptor antagonists, which block specific neurons in the brain “thermostat” that trigger VMS. It does not appear to affect other symptoms of menopause. As with many drugs targeting a brain cell receptor, it must be taken continuously for a few days to build up a good therapeutic response, rather than working as a rescue product such as an asthma inhaler to immediately treat that condition.
Hot flashes vary greatly and naturally get better or resolve completely with time. That contributes to a placebo effect and makes it more difficult to judge the outcome of any intervention. Early this year, a meta analysis of 17 studies of drug trials for hot flashes found an unusually large placebo response in those types of studies; the placebo groups had an average of 5.44 fewer hot flashes and a 36 percent reduction in their severity.
In studies of fezolinetant, the drug recently approved by the FDA, the placebo benefit was strong and persistent. The drug group bested the placebo response to a statistically significant degree but, “If people have gone from 11 hot flashes a day to eight or seven in the placebo group and down to a couple fewer ones in the drug groups, how meaningful is that? Having six hot flashes a day is still pretty unpleasant,” says Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research (NCHR), a health oriented think tank.
“Is a reduction compared to placebo of 2-3 hot flashes per day, in a population of women experiencing 10-11 moderate to severe hot flashes daily, enough relief to be clinically meaningful?” Andrea LaCroix asked a commentary published in Nature Medicine. She is an epidemiologist at the University of California San Diego and a leader of the MsFlash network that has conducted a handful of NIH-funded studies on menopause.
LaCroix and others have raised questions about how Astellas, the company that makes the new drug, handled missing data from patients who dropped out of the clinical trials. “The lack of detailed information about important parameters such as adherence and missing data raises concerns that the reported benefits of fezolinetant very likely overestimate those that will be observed in clinical practice," LaCroix wrote.
In response to this concern, Anna Criddle, director of global portfolio communications at Astellas, wrote in an email to Leaps.org: “…a full analysis of data, including adherence data and any impact of missing data, was submitted for assessment by [the FDA].”
The company ran the studies at more than 300 sites around the world. Curiously, none appear to have been at academic medical centers, which are known for higher quality research. Zuckerman says, "When somebody is paid to do a study, if they want to get paid to do another study by the same company, they will try to make sure that the results are the results that the company wants.”
Criddle said that Astellas picked the sites “that would allow us to reach a diverse population of women, including race and ethnicity.”
A trial of a lower dose of the drug was conducted in Asia. In March 2022, Astellas issued a press release saying it had failed to prove effectiveness. No further data has been released. Astellas still plans to submit the data, according to Criddle. Results from clinical trials funded by the U.S. goverment must be reported on clinicaltrials.gov within one year of the study's completion - a deadline that, in this case, has expired.
The measurement scale for hot flashes used in the studies, mild-moderate-severe, also came in for criticism. “It is really not good scale, there probably isn’t a broad enough range of things going on or descriptors,” says David Rind. He is chief medical officer of the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER), a nonprofit authority on new drugs. It conducted a thorough review and analysis of fezolinestant using then existing data gathered from conference abstracts, posters and presentations and included a public stakeholder meeting in December. A 252-page report was published in January, finding “considerable uncertainty about the comparative net health benefits of fezolinetant” versus hormone therapy.
Questions surrounding some of these issues might have been answered if the FDA had chosen to hold a public advisory committee meeting on fezolinetant, which it regularly does for first in class medicines. But the agency decided such a meeting was unnecessary.
There was little surprise when Astellas announced a list price for fezolinetant of $550 a month ($6000 annually) and a program of patient assistance to ease out of pocket expenses. The company had already incurred large expenses.
In 2017 Astellas purchased the company that originally developed fezolinetant for $534 million plus several hundred million in potential royalties. The drug company ran a "disease awareness” ad, Heat on the Street, hat aired during the Super Bowl in February, where 30 second ads cost about $7 million. Industry analysts have projected sales to be $1.9 billion by 2028.
ICER’s pre-approval evaluation said fezolinetant might "be considered cost-effective if priced around $2,000 annually. ... [It]will depend upon its price and whether it is considered an alternative to MHT [menopause hormone treatment] for all women or whether it will primarily be used by women who cannot or will not take MHT."
Criddle wrote that Astellas set the price based on the novelty of the science, the quality of evidence for the drug and its uniqueness compared to the rest of the market. She noted that an individual’s payment will depend on how much their insurance company decides to cover. “[W]e expect insurance coverage to increase over the course of the year and to achieve widespread coverage in the U.S. over time.”
Leaps.org wrote to and followed up with nine of the largest health insurers/providers asking basic questions about their coverage of fezolinetant. Only two responded. Jennifer Martin, the deputy chief consultant for pharmacy benefits management at the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the agency “covers all drugs from the date that they are launched.” Decisions on whether it will be included in the drug formulary and what if any copays might be required are under review.
“[Fezolinetant] will go through our standard P&T Committee [patient and treatment] review process in the next few months, including a review of available efficacy data, safety data, clinical practice guidelines, and comparison with other agents used for vasomotor symptoms of menopause," said Phil Blando, executive director of corporate communications for CVS Health.
Other insurers likely are going through a similar process to decide issues such as limiting coverage to women who are advised not to use hormones, how much copay will be required, and whether women will be required to first try other options or obtain approvals before getting a prescription.
Rind wants to see a few years of use before he prescribes fezolinetant broadly, and believes most doctors share his view. Nor will they be eager to fill out the additional paperwork required for women to participate in the Astellas patient assistance program, he added.
Astellas is marketing its drug by pointing out risks of hormone therapy, such as a recent paper in The BMJ, which noted that women who took hormones for even a short period of time had a 24 percent increased risk of dementia. While the percentage was scary, the combined number of women both on and off hormones who developed dementia was small. And it is unclear whether hormones are causing dementia or if more severe hot flashes are a marker for higher risk of developing dementia. This information is emerging only after 80 years of hundreds of millions of women using hormones.
In contrast, the label for fezolinetant prohibits “concomitant use with CYP1A2 inhibitors” and requires testing for liver and kidney function prior to initiating the drug and every three months thereafter. There is no human or animal data on use in a geriatric population, defined as 65 or older, a group that is likely to use the drug. Only a few thousand women have ever taken fezolinetant and most have used it for just a few months.
A woman seeking relief from symptoms of menopause would like to see how fezolintant compares with other available treatment options. But Astellas did not conduct such a study and Andrea LaCroix says it is unlikely that anyone ever will.
ICER has come the closest, with a side-by-side analysis of evidence-based treatments and found that fezolinetant performed quite similarly and modestly as the others in providing relief from hot flashes. Some treatments also help with other symptoms of menopause, which fezolinetant does not.
There are many coping strategies that women can adopt to deal with hot flashes; one of the most common is dressing in layers (such as a sleeveless blouse with a sweater) that can be added or subtracted as conditions require. Avoiding caffeine, hot liquids, and spicy foods is another common strategy. “I stopped drinking hot caffeinated drinks…for several years, and you get out of the habit of drinking them,” says Zuckerman.
LaCroix curates those options at My Meno Plan, which includes a search function where you can enter your symptoms and identify which treatments might work best for you. It also links to published research papers. She says the goal is to empower women with information to make informed decisions about menopause.
Story by Freethink
Try burning an iron metal ingot and you’ll have to wait a long time — but grind it into a powder and it will readily burst into flames. That’s how sparklers work: metal dust burning in a beautiful display of light and heat. But could we burn iron for more than fun? Could this simple material become a cheap, clean, carbon-free fuel?
In new experiments — conducted on rockets, in microgravity — Canadian and Dutch researchers are looking at ways of boosting the efficiency of burning iron, with a view to turning this abundant material — the fourth most common in the Earth’s crust, about about 5% of its mass — into an alternative energy source.
Iron as a fuel
Iron is abundantly available and cheap. More importantly, the byproduct of burning iron is rust (iron oxide), a solid material that is easy to collect and recycle. Neither burning iron nor converting its oxide back produces any carbon in the process.
Iron oxide is potentially renewable by reacting with electricity or hydrogen to become iron again.
Iron has a high energy density: it requires almost the same volume as gasoline to produce the same amount of energy. However, iron has poor specific energy: it’s a lot heavier than gas to produce the same amount of energy. (Think of picking up a jug of gasoline, and then imagine trying to pick up a similar sized chunk of iron.) Therefore, its weight is prohibitive for many applications. Burning iron to run a car isn’t very practical if the iron fuel weighs as much as the car itself.
In its powdered form, however, iron offers more promise as a high-density energy carrier or storage system. Iron-burning furnaces could provide direct heat for industry, home heating, or to generate electricity.
Plus, iron oxide is potentially renewable by reacting with electricity or hydrogen to become iron again (as long as you’ve got a source of clean electricity or green hydrogen). When there’s excess electricity available from renewables like solar and wind, for example, rust could be converted back into iron powder, and then burned on demand to release that energy again.
However, these methods of recycling rust are very energy intensive and inefficient, currently, so improvements to the efficiency of burning iron itself may be crucial to making such a circular system viable.
The science of discrete burning
Powdered particles have a high surface area to volume ratio, which means it is easier to ignite them. This is true for metals as well.
Under the right circumstances, powdered iron can burn in a manner known as discrete burning. In its most ideal form, the flame completely consumes one particle before the heat radiating from it combusts other particles in its vicinity. By studying this process, researchers can better understand and model how iron combusts, allowing them to design better iron-burning furnaces.
Discrete burning is difficult to achieve on Earth. Perfect discrete burning requires a specific particle density and oxygen concentration. When the particles are too close and compacted, the fire jumps to neighboring particles before fully consuming a particle, resulting in a more chaotic and less controlled burn.
Presently, the rate at which powdered iron particles burn or how they release heat in different conditions is poorly understood. This hinders the development of technologies to efficiently utilize iron as a large-scale fuel.
Burning metal in microgravity
In April, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched a suborbital “sounding” rocket, carrying three experimental setups. As the rocket traced its parabolic trajectory through the atmosphere, the experiments got a few minutes in free fall, simulating microgravity.
One of the experiments on this mission studied how iron powder burns in the absence of gravity.
In microgravity, particles float in a more uniformly distributed cloud. This allows researchers to model the flow of iron particles and how a flame propagates through a cloud of iron particles in different oxygen concentrations.
Existing fossil fuel power plants could potentially be retrofitted to run on iron fuel.
Insights into how flames propagate through iron powder under different conditions could help design much more efficient iron-burning furnaces.
Clean and carbon-free energy on Earth
Various businesses are looking at ways to incorporate iron fuels into their processes. In particular, it could serve as a cleaner way to supply industrial heat by burning iron to heat water.
For example, Dutch brewery Swinkels Family Brewers, in collaboration with the Eindhoven University of Technology, switched to iron fuel as the heat source to power its brewing process, accounting for 15 million glasses of beer annually. Dutch startup RIFT is running proof-of-concept iron fuel power plants in Helmond and Arnhem.
As researchers continue to improve the efficiency of burning iron, its applicability will extend to other use cases as well. But is the infrastructure in place for this transition?
Often, the transition to new energy sources is slowed by the need to create new infrastructure to utilize them. Fortunately, this isn’t the case with switching from fossil fuels to iron. Since the ideal temperature to burn iron is similar to that for hydrocarbons, existing fossil fuel power plants could potentially be retrofitted to run on iron fuel.
Tom Oxley is building what he calls a “natural highway into the brain” that lets people use their minds to control their phones and computers. The device, called the Stentrode, could improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people living with spinal cord paralysis, ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Leaps.org talked with Dr. Oxley for today’s podcast. A fascinating thing about the Stentrode is that it works very differently from other “brain computer interfaces” you may be familiar with, like Elon Musk’s Neuralink. Some BCIs are implanted by surgeons directly into a person’s brain, but the Stentrode is much less invasive. Dr. Oxley’s company, Synchron, opts for a “natural” approach, using stents in blood vessels to access the brain. This offers some major advantages to the handful of people who’ve already started to use the Stentrode.
The audio of this episode improves about 10 minutes in. (There was a minor headset issue early on, but everything is audible throughout.) Dr. Oxley’s work creates game-changing opportunities for patients desperate for new options. His take on where we're headed with BCIs is must listening for anyone who cares about the future of health and technology.
In our conversation, Dr. Oxley talks about “Bluetooth brain”; the critical role of AI in the present and future of BCIs; how BCIs compare to voice command technology; regulatory frameworks for revolutionary technologies; specific people with paralysis who’ve been able to regain some independence thanks to the Stentrode; what it means to be a neurointerventionist; how to scale BCIs for more people to use them; the risks of BCIs malfunctioning; organic implants; and how BCIs help us understand the brain, among other topics.
Dr. Oxley received his PhD in neuro engineering from the University of Melbourne in Australia. He is the founding CEO of Synchron and an associate professor and the head of the vascular bionics laboratory at the University of Melbourne. He’s also a clinical instructor in the Deepartment of Neurosurgery at Mount Sinai Hospital. Dr. Oxley has completed more than 1,600 endovascular neurosurgical procedures on patients, including people with aneurysms and strokes, and has authored over 100 peer reviewed articles.
Synchron website - https://synchron.com/
Assessment of Safety of a Fully Implanted Endovascular Brain-Computer Interface for Severe Paralysis in 4 Patients (paper co-authored by Tom Oxley) - https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaneurology/art...
More research related to Synchron's work - https://synchron.com/research
Tom Oxley on LinkedIn - https://www.linkedin.com/in/tomoxl
Tom Oxley on Twitter - https://twitter.com/tomoxl?lang=en
Tom Oxley website - https://tomoxl.com/
Novel brain implant helps paralyzed woman speak using digital avatar - https://engineering.berkeley.edu/news/2023/08/novel-brain-implant-helps-paralyzed-woman-speak-using-a-digital-avatar/
Edward Chang lab - https://changlab.ucsf.edu/
BCIs convert brain activity into text at 62 words per minute - https://med.stanford.edu/neurosurgery/news/2023/he...
Leaps.org: The Mind-Blowing Promise of Neural Implants - https://leaps.org/the-mind-blowing-promise-of-neural-implants/