Accutane (isotretinoin) was an acne medicine that reached the U.S. market during the early 1980s and quickly become a best-settling prescription drug. Since then, a number of studies have connected Accutane to numerous side effects ranging from birth defects to inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) to suicide.
Although the drug was hailed by dermatologists as a breakthrough treatment for patients with severe acne, Accutane’s dangerous side effects affected thousands of patients during the past 30 years.
In the summer of 2009, Accutane manufacturer Roche Pharmaceuticals recalled the drug from American drugstores and also in several other countries. Representatives for Roche said the acne treatment had hit the end of its life cycle because of the end of its patent and the addition of several generic Accutane drugs to the market.
Roche’s brand-name Accutane had a market share of less than 5 percent of the market at the time of the recall. A number of generic equivalents of isotretinoin remain available today.
What is Accutane?
Accutane’s chemical composition resembles that of retinoic acid, a compound derived from Vitamin A. The primary application for Accutane is for nodular acne in patients that do not respond to topical applications (such as benzoyl peroxide) and standard antibiotic treatments.
People with severe cases of nodular acne can display red, tender and swollen bumps under the skin. These bumps can have a diameter of a quarter-inch or larger. Left untreated, these bumps can lead to permanent facial scarring and disfigurement. Accutane treats these bumps by slowing the rate of chemical production that leads to skin breakouts.
Accutane: A History of Adverse Reactions
In recalling Accutane, Roche expressed no concern about the drug’s safety or effectiveness. However, numerous users of the drug reported harmful responses to it, dating to the time it was first marketed in 1982.
Accutane is linked to serious birth defects after women took it while pregnant. Accutane also is connected with side effects of depression, suicidal thoughts and irritable bowel syndrome (IBD), including Crohn’s disease.
A 2007 study in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology examined women who became pregnant while taking isotretinoin. The study found among 90 pregnant women taking Accutane, only nine had a live birth. Three experienced spontaneous abortion, two had trauma during delivery resulting in the newborn’s death and 76 had elective abortions.
A 2001 article in the New England Journal of Medicine linked Accutane to depression. A U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) study examined 110 people who took Accutane and were hospitalized for depression or attempted suicide. Their ages ranged from 12 to 47.
At a 2009 meeting of the American College of Gastroenterology in San Diego, a research team from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill presented the results of a study that showed a higher rate of digestive disorders, including IBD and ulcerative colitis, in Accutane users. The UNC study found that Accutane users were 1.7 times more likely to develop IBD than the general population, while those who had filled at least four Accutane prescriptions were 2.67 times more likely to come down with the disease. Patients with IBD experience diarrhea, abdominal pain, cramping and bleeding.
The UNC presentation also showed that patients who took Accutane had more than four times the risk of developing ulcerative colitis than the general population. Ulcerative colitis is a condition in which the lining of the colon and rectum develops open sores, causing severe pain and irritation during bowel movements.
Despite the studies outlining the negative effects from taking Accutane, Roche declined to denounce its drug. Instead, the company said, “Roche stands behind the safety of Accutane.”
Lawsuits Play Role in Recall
However, one factor beyond the expiration of patents that led to Roche’s recall of Accutane was a growing cost of litigation. Roche found itself defending thousands of Accutane lawsuits.
By the time Roche recalled the drug, people who experienced Accutane’s side effects – as well as their families – had filed nearly 1,000 lawsuits against the company. With more patients citing the ill effects of Accutane as reasons for their illnesses, the total number of cases is expected to exceed 5,000.
Thousands of individuals who feel that they developed illnesses because of taking Accutane pursued legal recourse with the help of an experienced Accutane attorney. Many received verdicts to recover medical expenses as well as a measure of punitive and compensatory damages against the manufacturers for lost wages, pain and suffering.