Evelyn Pringle April 25, 2007
According to Johnson and Johnson's SEC filings, as of December 31, 2006, there were 100 lawsuits pending against the company involving the Charite artificial spinal disc, seeking "substantial compensatory and, where available, punitive damages."
The J&J subsidiary, DePuy Spine, has marketed the Charite since the disc was FDA approved for sale in the US in October 2004, to treat patients who have degenerative disc disease at one level in the spine.
In a nutshell, the lawsuits allege that the Charite is defective, it was improperly marketed, and J&J failed to adequately warn doctors and consumers about the dangers of the disc.
In March 2006, J&J filed a motion for summary judgment in attempt to have 4 lawsuits dismissed in the Superior Court in Bristol, Mass, using a legal defense known as preemption where a device maker cannot be sued if the FDA has approved the device.
Its ironic that J&J would try to use this argument when experts say the fault lies with the FDA for approving the Charite to begin with based on one 2-year noninferiority trial that sought only to show that it worked as well as the Bagby and Kuslich (BAK) cage used in spinal fusions, which had already been abandoned due high failure rates.
And even when compared to the outdated surgery, the disc worked no better in relieving pain and most Charite patients were still taking narcotic pain drugs 2 years later.
On April 11, 2007, Judge Susan Garsh denied J&J's motion and noted that the plaintiffs alleged that DePuy made specific performance claims to obtain FDA approval that the device failed to achieve and "there is evidence to support the device does not perform in the manner which DePuy represented to the FDA that it must perform," she wrote.
According to the lawsuits, Charite patients were provided materials by DePuy that stated: "The Charite Artificial Disc has a clinical history spanning 17 years. Its safety, efficiency and remarkable durability have been proven through thousands of implants worldwide."
DePuy also promoted the disc with the phrase: "Natural Motion is Back."
J&J claims that replacement surgery will alleviate chronic back pain, permit natural movement and improve the patient's ability to function under the premise that segmental mobility of the spine will improve, as has been the case with hip and knee replacement.
J&J's main selling point is that disc replacement is more effective than lumbar spinal fusion surgery, where the damaged disc is removed and the vertebrae are joined together using bone grafts, metal screws and/or cages and motion can no longer occur in that area.
However, critics point out that in many of the surgeries listed as successes, the Charite only worked after the auto-fusing of bones together, similar to spinal fusion surgery, which eliminates the possibility of natural motion that leads patients to chose the costly replacement surgery to begin with.
A long line of studies show the odds for revision surgery in Charite patients are high. Back in 1996, Cinotti, David et al, analyzed the follow-up on 46 patients and eight patients had undergone subsequent fusion surgery. "The main cause of poor outcomes appear to be an inappropriate selection of patients undergoing disc replacement," the authors concluded.
In 1997, Lemaire, Skalli, et al, reported on 105 patients with average follow-up of 51 months and found that fifty patients or 48% had undergone at least one operation.
A 1999 study by Zeegers, Bohnen et al in the Netherlands reported the 2-year results for 50 patients and found 12 patients, or 24%, needed re-operation.
In a more recent study from the University Medicine in Berlin (2005), Putzier, Funk et al evaluated 71 patients who received implants between 1984 and 1989, and of the 53 patients available for examination, 12, or 23%, had undergone surgical fusion.
But there were warnings that the Charite was not all it was cracked up to be even before it was approved. In April 2003, the Spine Journal published the paper, "Total Disc Replacement for Chronic Low Back Pain: Background and a Systematic Review of the Literature," that stated: "There is no evidence that disc replacement reliably, reproducibly, and over longer periods of time fulfils the three primary aims of clinical efficacy, continued motion, and few adjacent segment degenerative problems."
Some experts say the Charite itself is the problem. On October 23, 2006, the Street.com reported that researchers at the University of California at Irvine claim the device maker made a crucial mistake when designing the disc that explains why the replacement surgery has resulted in repeated failures with "catastrophic consequences" for patients.
"They've based their center of rotation on a disc space that is in front of the spinal canal," Dr Charles Rosen, a Cal-Irvine spine surgeon, told the Street.
According to Dr Rosen, the makers overlooked the spine's normal function by creating an "artificial center of rotation" in a space that lies in front of the spinal canal instead of behind it and has compromised the body in the process.
"You have a center of rotation that's normally there, and they falsely impose another," he told the Street. "You can't have two because they will neutralize each other. Something has to give."
"To give," he says, "either the back part of the device breaks or the front part dislocates."
J&J has a lot of money riding on the Charite and if it turns out that Dr Rosen is right, its January 1, 2006, projection the total spine market will bring the company $9 billion by 2010 will go right down the tubes.
Spine surgery is a multi-billion dollar industry. According to the August 5, 2006 LA Times, at least $3.2 billion was spent in the US on spinal fusion in 2005, and Medicare payments to hospitals for implant surgery have risen about 40%, in the past 2 years, from $10 billion to $14 billion, according to the September 26, 2006, New York Times.
However, serious questions are being raised about whether doctors and hospitals are practicing surgery for profit, especially since the revelation that surgeons are investing in companies that make the devices and hardware used during spine surgery.
On December 30, 2006, Reed Abelson reported in the New York Times that over the past couple of years, about 30 start-up companies have begun selling spine devices and hardware and about a dozen have doctors investors.
"Because most of the companies are private and the relationships are not publicly disclosed," he wrote, "there is no way to know how many spine surgeons around the country are partial owners of device makers."
Stan Mendenhall, editor of the newsletter, Orthopedic Network News, told the Times that the spine device market has doubled in the last 3 years and there are now about 100 companies and doctors have ownership in some of the newest firms. And there are apparently plenty of profits to spread around because the report says a single screw sells for around $1,000 or 10 times the cost of making it.
Back on June 28, 2006, the Times revealed another funneling scheme set up by doctors and device makers when it reported that, "doctors in private practice have set up tax-exempt charities into which drug companies and medical device makers are, with little fanfare, pouring donations — money that adds up to millions of dollars a year."
"The tax-exempt money also sometimes flows to the for-profit medical groups affiliated with the charities," the Times wrote, "sometimes covering business expenses or even paying parts of the salaries of doctors."
For example, the Times revealed that the tax-exempt, "Blue Ridge Bone and Joint Research Foundation," headed by Dr Joseph Moskal, an orthopedic surgeon, received $75,000 from DePuy in the year ending July 31, 2004, and then paid $30,000 of that money to the for-profit Roanoke Orthopaedic Center, where Dr Moskal practices, to defray the costs of a fellowship program there.
The Department of Justice made it known that J&J's relationships with doctors are under investigation in June 2006, when it served subpoenas and search warrants on DePuy, demanding copies of consulting contracts, professional services agreements, and documents that evidence the company's arrangements with orthopedic surgeons.