Fad diet drug may be deadly
December 18, 1996
Web posted at: 11:00 a.m. EST
From Correspondent Eugenia Halsey
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The fad diet drug combination fen-phen has helped increasing numbers of overweight people drop pounds with ease, but researchers say the diet aid also has potentially deadly side effects.
Former fen-phen fan Andrea Adams now suffers from the crippling and fatal disease primary pulmonary hypertension. She and her doctors suspect her affliction stems from combining the drugs fenfluramine and phentermine to create a fen-phen weight-loss cocktail.
Adams' symptoms began appearing about 18 months after the drugs helped her lose 30 pounds. She had trouble breathing; chest pains followed.
"I couldn't walk more than a couple of feet without having to stop and catch my breath," said Adams.
Finally, Adams was referred to Dr. Lewis Rubin of the University of Maryland, who diagnosed her as having PPH.
"I asked him what the prognosis was," said Adams. "And he said that without medication, my life expectancy was about two years."
Serious and deadly
The lack of a cure makes PPH a "very serious disease," said Rubin.
Normally, PPH is relatively rare. According to a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine, only about 1 in 500,000 people get it. But in people who have used fen-phen for more than three months, PPH appears at a rate of nearly 1 in 20,000, or 25 times higher than normal.
And no one knows if the risk rises according to how long a person takes the pills.
"If it further increases, then we're in big trouble," said Rubin.
Fen-phen was developed by Dr. Michael Weintraub. While working as a researcher at the University of Rochester, he hit upon combining the two appetite suppressants in hopes of offsetting each drug's annoying side effects.
Fenfluramine makes people drowsy, while phentermine is a stimulant. Together, they cancel out each other's side effects while suppressing the appetite.
"I was just interested in it from an intellectual exercise, proving that it worked, helping people," said Weintraub.
Now, along with the federal Food and Drug Administration, Weintraub is troubled by cases like Andrea Adams'.
Only people whose weight poses a serious health problem should consider fen-phen, he says.
"These are powerful drugs. This is not trivial medicine," Weintraub told CNN. "This is major-league stuff."
But many people are ignoring the red flags over fen-phen. In the next installment of this series, CNN will report on skinny people taking fen-phen, and the doctors who give it to them.
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