Fenfluramine (Pondimin) and Dexfenfluramine (Redux)
Fenfluramine (Pondimin) and Dexfenfluramine (Redux): Fenfluramine and its enantiomer dexfenfluramine were approved in the 1970s and 1990s, respectively. They worked by increasing serotonin levels, reducing appetite. However, both were withdrawn from the US market in 1997 due to their association with serious heart and lung issues, including primary pulmonary hypertension and valvular heart disease.
Pondimin was the brand name for fenfluramine which was the harmful ingredient in the now notorious Fen-Phen diet drug combination from the 1990s.
Era of Discovery
1970s and 1990s
Mechanism of Action
Increase serotonin levels, reducing appetite
History of Use in the United States
Used in the 1970s and 1990s, withdrawn in 1997
Benefit of Weight Loss Agent or Medication
Weight loss due to appetite suppression
Possible Side Effects
Primary pulmonary hypertension, valvular heart disease
Current Regulatory Status in US
Withdrawn from the market
Fenfluramine: An Unsettled Tale of Promise, Peril, and Redemption
Fenfluramine's story is one of a tumultuous journey through the landscape of weight loss medication, marked by initial lackluster interest, a dramatic rise to prominence, subsequent scandal, and eventual re-emergence in a new guise.
Initial Development and Early Reception
First approved by the FDA in 1973 for the treatment of obesity, fenfluramine's initial reception was lukewarm. This modest beginning was largely due to a saturated market of weight loss drugs and a somewhat limited understanding of the medication's unique mechanism of action. Fenfluramine works primarily as a non-selective serotonin agonist, promoting the release of serotonin and inhibiting its reuptake, resulting in an appetite-suppressing effect.
The Weintraub Studies and the Advent of Fen-Phen
The narrative around fenfluramine dramatically changed in the 1990s, courtesy of a series of influential studies by Dr. Michael Weintraub. These studies proposed a combination treatment of fenfluramine and phentermine, often referred to as "fen-phen." This innovative approach sought to harness the complementary effects of the two drugs, with phentermine promoting the release of norepinephrine to suppress appetite, and fenfluramine enhancing serotonin activity to curb cravings.The popularity of fen-phen exploded almost overnight. The allure of a "magic bullet" for weight loss, backed by promising clinical study results, proved irresistible to both physicians and patients alike. Yet, this dazzling success was poised on a precipice.
A Dark Turn: Valvular Heart Disease and Drug Withdrawal
In 1997, the Mayo Clinic published a series of case reports documenting a potential association between fen-phen and valvular heart disease. This sparked immediate concern, as the implication of a widely prescribed medication in serious cardiac issues was deeply troubling.Subsequent investigations confirmed these initial findings, prompting the FDA to request the withdrawal of fenfluramine and its enantiomer dexfenfluramine (marketed as Redux) from the market on September 15, 1997. Notably, phentermine was not implicated in these safety concerns and remained on the market, largely due to its different mechanism of action and lack of serotonergic activity.
The Fallout: Fen-Phen Lawsuits and Settlements
In the aftermath of the withdrawal, a flurry of lawsuits ensued. Thousands of patients who had used fen-phen filed suit, leading to one of the largest class-action lawsuits in pharmaceutical history. In 2000, American Home Products, the maker of fenfluramine, agreed to a $3.75 billion settlement.
The question of whether fen-phen was more effective than monotherapy with either drug remains controversial. While some studies suggest a synergistic effect, others argue the risks associated with the combination therapy far outweigh any potential benefits.
Redux and Racemization
Redux, the brand name for dexfenfluramine, was the single isomer version of fenfluramine. While it was thought to have similar efficacy and a better side effect profile, its link to heart valve issues and primary pulmonary hypertension led to its downfall.Lorcaserin's Similarities and Differences
More recently, lorcaserin (Belviq), a selective serotonin 2C receptor agonist, was developed as a safer alternative to fenfluramine. However, it too was withdrawn from the market in 2020 due to a potential increased risk of cancer.
A Second Life for Fenfluramine?
In a surprising turn, fenfluramine has been repurposed for a new use. A low-dose version, known as Fenfluramine Hydrochlorchloride (Fintepla), has been approved by the FDA for the treatment of seizures associated with Dravet Syndrome, a rare and severe form of epilepsy. While not devoid of side effects, its utility in a life-threatening condition such as Dravet Syndrome is a testament to the complex and often surprising nature of drug development and use.Interestingly, the repositioning of fenfluramine to treat Dravet Syndrome has rekindled a discussion about its unique mechanism of action. The drug's ability to modulate serotonin activity appears to have broader neurologic effects, and this has opened up potential new avenues for research and treatment.
The Legacy of Fenfluramine
Fenfluramine's journey—through initial development, the fen-phen era, withdrawal, and rebirth—offers a striking illustration of the complex interplay of science, medicine, and society. It underscores the importance of rigorous, ongoing post-marketing surveillance of pharmaceuticals and highlights the potential for drugs to have second lives in completely different therapeutic areas. Even as fenfluramine's legacy in weight loss treatment is marred by its past, its future in neurology offers a fascinating new chapter.