Byetta and Bydureon are medications used to help treat Type 2 diabetes. But these drugs, containing the active ingredient exenatide, are also linked to very serious side effects and complications that can even include the development of cancer. Clinical research and post-marketing studies have found an increased risk of thyroid cancer, inflammation of the pancreas and the development of pancreatic cancer in patients using Byetta and Bydureon.
Although Byetta and Bydureon have been approved to assist users in the treatment of Type 2 diabetes, these drugs have also been linked to deadly side effects, such as cancer.
Patients taking these drugs are also at an increased risk of developing pancreatitis, a very serious and potentially deadly condition of the organ that works to aid in digestion and the control of blood sugar levels.
Clinical study results linked Byetta exposure to thyroid cancer. This risk is especially seen with higher doses of the drug and when used for prolonged periods of time.
One study conducted by Michael Elashoff and colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles and published in Gastroenterology revealed that people who used Byetta were almost five times more likely to develop thyroid cancer than those who took another diabetes medication, Avandia (rosiglitazone).
A review conducted by doctors at National Taiwan University College of Medicine and published in Experimental Diabetes Research found Byetta increased the number of cancerous cells in the thyroids of mice. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s adverse-event database also shows an increased risk of thyroid cancer associated with the drug.
According to tests of lab rats, the risk involved the gland’s C cells, resulting in malignant thyroid C-cell carcinomas. This includes medullary thyroid carcinoma (MTC). The increased risk was notably observed in females.
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland that is located in the lower front of the neck, just above the collarbone. It makes hormones necessary for regulating the body’s metabolism, including body temperature, how fast calories burn and how fast the heart beats.
Medullary thyroid carcinomas (MTCs) are moderately malignant tumors affecting the C cells of the thyroid gland that can infiltrate nearby tissues in the neck and spread to other organs in the body as well, such as the lungs and the liver.
A person is more likely to develop MTC if they have a family history of MTC or multiple endocrine neoplasia (MEN). Drug labeling warns against the use of Byetta and Bydureon in these patients.
Most patients with thyroid cancer in its early stages have no symptoms of the disease.
MTC typically begins with a small lump in the thyroid gland and may be accompanied by or followed with lymph node swelling in the neck. MTC can also cause enlargement of one or both thyroid lobes. Sometimes, extensive enlargement involves the entire thyroid gland.
Blood testing, an ultrasound of the thyroid and a thyroid biopsy are all methods used to diagnose MTC. Treatment typically involves surgery to remove the thyroid gland and surrounding lymph nodes that may have also been affected. A surgeon who specializes in this type of cancer is important, as MTC is not a common tumor.
Clinical trials are being done to discover new treatments for MTC, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Currently, chemotherapy and radiation do not work well for the cancer. Although, radiation may be used in some patients after surgery.
About 86 percent of patients with MTC live at least five years after diagnosis. The 10-year survival rate is about 20 percent lower.
Pancreatitis is a medical condition that causes the pancreas to become inflamed and swell. Severe cases can lead to hospitalization and even death – with a mortality rate of 10 to 30 percent. According to data gathered from the FDA and compiled by the Institute of Safe Medication Practices, there were more than 400 reports of acute and chronic pancreatitis in 2011 resulting from exenatide.
In a 2011 study published in Gastroenterology, researchers found people who took Byetta were six times more likely to report pancreatitis. The results were consistent with animal studies that also revealed an increased risk.
As a result of the increasing reports of pancreatitis in users of Byetta, the FDA required the manufacturer to conduct more post-market studies on the drug in 2009. The FDA issued an updated safety communication in 2013, saying it was still investigating the drugs’ link to pancreatitis and cancer.
Pancreatic cancer is a cancer with a low survival rate because more than 80 percent of cases are diagnosed after tumors spread to other organs. Long-term survival rates are exceedingly low: about 95 percent of people succumb to the disease within five years.
The active ingredient of the diabetes drug is linked to an increase in pancreatic cancer. The same 2011 study published in Gastroenterology revealed that there was an almost three-fold increase in reported cases of pancreatic cancer in users of Byetta.
The pancreas is a long, flattened glandular organ that is located deep in the belly. It is both a part of the digestive system and the endocrine system. The pancreas produces chemicals called enzymes, as well as the hormones insulin and glucagon. It is important to digestion and the control of blood sugar levels in the body.
Because of its “hidden” location within the body, tumors of the pancreas are rarely felt by pressing on the abdomen. Most problems with the pancreas, including pancreatic cancer, are not detected until the condition begins to interfere with the function of the pancreas and other nearby organs, such as the stomach, duodenum (first section of the small intestine), liver and gallbladder.
Most of the time, the enzymes produced by the pancreas, are only active after they have reached the small intestine to carry out their role in the digestion of food. But when these enzymes become active inside the pancreas, they begin to eat away at, or digest, the tissue in the organ. This is turn causes swelling and bleeding in the mixed gland and ultimately results in damage to the pancreas and its blood vessels.
Pancreatitis triggers pain in the upper abdomen that can spread to the back. The pain can surface in various ways, sometimes being felt as mild at first, and often becoming worse after eating.
A physical exam can reveal abdominal tenderness or a lump that may be associated with a diagnosis of pancreatitis.
Generally, a treating physician who suspects pancreatitis will also check the patient’s following vitals:
TemperatureThe patient will usually have a fever.
Blood pressureWill typically be low.
Heart rateCommonly it will be rapid; fast.
Breathing (respiratory) rateTypically it will be rapid.
In addition to the physical exam and retrieving a patient’s medical history, a doctor will typically perform a blood test for digestive enzymes (amylase and lipase) of the pancreas. In a patient with pancreatitis, the levels of these enzymes are often elevated by about three times the normal level.
Abdominal imaging, such as CT scan, MRI or ultrasound, can also be used where blood tests are unavailable or inconclusive.
In more severe cases, or when cancer is present, surgery may be needed to remove dead or infected pancreatic tissue or tumors. In most patients with pancreatic cancer, the tumor has already spread and cannot be completely removed after diagnosis. In such cases, a cure is not possible.
Most cases of pancreatitis resolve in about a week. However, the condition can sometimes progress to a life-threatening illness.
Sometimes, even after healing, the condition can return. Patients should avoid smoking, alcoholic drinks and fatty foods even after pancreatitis has improved. Repeat episodes can lead to chronic pancreatitis.
Please seek the advice of a medical professional before making health care decisions.
Kristin Compton is a medical writer with a background in legal studies. She has experience working in law firms as a paralegal and legal writer. She also has worked in journalism and marketing. She’s published numerous articles in a northwest Florida-based newspaper and lifestyle/entertainment magazine, as well as worked as a ghost writer on blog posts published online by a Central Florida law firm in the health law niche. As a patient herself, and an advocate, Kristin is passionate about “being a voice” for others.