Worst. Antidepressant. Ever.

Reboxetine is an antidepressant. Except it's not, because it doesn't treat depression.

This is the conclusion of a much-publicized article just out in the BMJ: Reboxetine for acute treatment of major depression: systematic review and meta-analysis of published and unpublished placebo and SSRI controlled trials.

Reboxetine was introduced to some fanfare, because its mechanism of action is unique - it's a selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (NRI), which has no effect on serotonin, unlike Prozac and other newer antidepressants. Several older tricyclic antidepressants were NRIs, but they weren't selective because they also blocked a shed-load of receptors.

So in theory reboxetine treats depression while avoiding the side effects of other drugs, but last year, Cipriani et al in a headline-grabbing meta-analysis concluded that in fact it's the exact opposite: reboxetine was the least effective new antidepressant, and was also one of the worst in terms of side effects. Oh dear.

And that was only based on the published data. It turns out that Pfizer, the manufacturers of reboxetine, had chosen to not publish the results of most of their clinical trials of the drug, because the data showed that it was crap.

The new BMJ paper includes these unpublished results - it took an inordinate amount of time and pressure to make Pfizer agree to share them, but they eventually did - and we learn that reboxetine is:

  • no more effective than a placebo at treating depression.
  • less effective than SSRIs, which incidentally are better than placebo in this dataset (a bit).
  • worse tolerated than most SSRIs, and much worse tolerated than placebo.
The one faint glimmer of hope that it's not a complete dud was that it did seem to work better than placebo in depressed inpatients. However, this could well have been a fluke, because the numbers involved were tiny: there was one trial showing a humongous benefit in inpatients, but it only had a total of 52 people.)

Claims that reboxetine is dangerous on the basis of this study are a bit misleading - it may be, but there was no evidence for that in these data. It caused nasty and annoying side-effects, but that's not the same thing, because if you don't like side-effects, you could just stop taking it (which is what many people in these trials did).

Anyway, what are the lessons of this sorry tale, beyond reboxetine being rubbish? The main one is: we have to start forcing drug companies and other researchers to publish the results of clinical trials, whatever the results are. I've discussed this previously and suggested one possible way of doing that.

The situation regarding publication bias is far better than it was 10 years ago, thanks to initiatives such as clinicaltrials.gov; almost all of the reboxetine trials were completed before the year 2000; if they were run today, it would have been much harder to hide them, but still not impossible, especially in Europe. We need to make it impossible, everywhere, now.

The other implication is, ironically, good news for antidepressants - well, except reboxetine. The existence of reboxetine, a drug which has lots of side effects, but doesn't work, is evidence against the theory (put forward by Joanna Moncrieff, Irving Kirsch and others) that even the antidepressants that do seem to work, only work because of active placebo effects driven by their side effects.

So given that reboxetine had more side effects than SSRIs, it ought to have worked better, but actually it worked worse. This is by no means the nail in the coffin of the active placebo hypothesis but it is, to my mind, quite convincing.

Link: This study also blogged by Good, Bad and Bogus.

ResearchBlogging.orgEyding, D., Lelgemann, M., Grouven, U., Harter, M., Kromp, M., Kaiser, T., Kerekes, M., Gerken, M., & Wieseler, B. (2010). Reboxetine for acute treatment of major depression: systematic review and meta-analysis of published and unpublished placebo and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor controlled trials BMJ, 341 (oct12 1) DOI: 10.1136/bmj.c4737

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