April 6, 2012
Fen Phen was, at one time, touted as a miraculous diet pill. It could help people shed unwanted pounds quickly and easily, but was eventually discovered to cause potentially fatal pulmonary hypertension and valve diseases. As a result, it was taken off of the market, and legal damages were awarded to users who developed heart problems as a result of taking Fen Phen.
What is Fen Phen?
Fen Phen was a combination of two different diet drugs, fenfluramine and phentermine. Fenfluramine triggers the release of serotonin, while phentermine triggers the release of norepinephrine.
Fenfluramine was used in the 70s as a weight loss drug, but wasn’t very popular since its effects were short lived. When it was combined with phentermine, patients were able to achieve much better weight loss results. Though Fen Phen is associated with a greatly increased risk of pulmonary hypertension, only fenfluramine was the culprit. Phentermine is still reasonably safe, and continues to be prescribed to this day.
Cardiovascular Problems and Fen Phen
Before Fen Phen became a household word, a similar drug called aminorex was known to increase user’s risk of developing pulmonary hypertension. By 1994, 41 different cases of pulmonary hypertension associated with fenfluramine use had been observed, but only 4 were cited on the drug’s label. Then, in 1996, a 30 year old woman developed heart problems within a month of using Fen Phen, and later died. The FDA then went on the alert, requesting that all health care professionals report any additional instances of heart problems and fenfluramine use, and that manufacturers of fenfluramine make more effort to stress the risk of pulmonary hypertension in the drug’s package inserts.
Eventually, as a result of these problems, fenfluramine was taken off of the market. The legal ramifications of fenfluramine use continue to be felt, as some patients did not develop cardiac problems until ten or twenty years after using it.
What is Pulmonary Hypertension?
Pulmonary hypertension is a potentially deadly lung disease. In pulmonary hypertension, blood pressure increases in the pulmonary artery, vein, or capillaries. This causes symptoms like:
- Shortness of breath.
- Chest pains.
- Swollen ankles and feet.
- Coughing up blood.
All of these symptoms may be worsened by exertion.
This condition is chronic, and can result in other complications over time. In pulmonary hypertension of the arteries, blood vessels within the lungs can tighten and stiffen, making the heart have to work harder to pump blood through them. Eventually, heart failure occurs. In pulmonary hypertension of the veins, blood pools in the lungs due to the heart’s inability to pump blood efficiently.
The prognosis for patients with pulmonary hypertension is often poor. If it is untreated, patients may only survive for two to three years. If it is treated, patients may be able to live for years afterward. Ultimately, patients with pulmonary hypertension generally die of heart failure.
Fenfluramine is no longer used as a medical treatment for obesity or anything else. Phentermine is well-tolerated by many individuals, though it is contraindicated for people with high blood pressure, as this may increase their risk of developing potentially serious side effects.
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