Eye Infections from Avastin Lead VA to Stop Use for Treatment of AMD

As a result of concerns that the cancer drug Avastin may cause serious eye infections and blindness when used off-label for treatment of wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has suspended use of the medication to treat the eye disease. 

The VA decision comes in the wake of an outbreak of eye infections from Avastin in Florida and Tennessee believed to be linked to the off-label use of the drug.

The infections resulted in a VA investigation, and officials indicate that physicians should consider other treatment options for AMD until the investigation is complete, at which time further guidance will be provided.

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Late last month, the FDA issued an alert after at least 12 reports of eye infections after Avastin use were traced back to repackaged products sold specifically to treat AMD at a Florida pharmacy. The Tennessee Valley Healthcare System reported another four Avastin eye infection cases as well. Some victims have suffered blindness and brain damage and several have filed lawsuits against pharmacies that repackaged the drug.

Avastin (bevacizumab) was approved by the FDA in 2004 for treatment of non-small cell lung cancer and colorectal cancer when combined with chemotherapy. It was developed by Genentech, which was later acquired by Roche. The drug works by restricting blood flow to tumors; starving them. Avastin sales reached nearly $6 billion in 2009.

Avastin is not approved by the FDA to treat AMD, but a recent government-sponsored study found that it was about as effective as Lucentis; which is designed to treat the condition. The major difference between the two is that Avastin is $50 per shot, while Lucentis, distributed by Roche and Novartis, is about $2,000 per shot.

An Avastin eye injection study published earlier this year by Johns Hopkins University researchers found that patients given Avastin to treat AMD were 11% more likely to die and 57% more likely to suffer a stroke than those treated with Lucentis.

AMD affects more than 2 million Americans over the age of 50 and is the leading cause of blindness in the United States, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. That number is expected to double by 2020 as members of the “baby boomer” generation continue to age.

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