The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is reviewing new, unpublished reports made by academic researchers that indicate patients taking certain drugs to treat Type-2 diabetes possess an increased risk of acute pancreatitis resulting in pancreatic cancer, according to an FDA press release, released on March 13.

The drugs in question are Byetta, Januvia, Janumet, and Victoza.  Byetta is an injectable drug, known as an incretin mimetic, that regulates blood sugar and glucose levels by increasing insulin in the pancreas and decreasing glucose levels in the liver.  Although the medication guide attached to the drug points out very serious side effects including “inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis) which may be severe and lead to death.” The label fails to notify users that the drug has been linked to an increased risk of pancreatic cancer or that pancreatitis can lead to pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest forms of cancer with a 4% survival rate at five years from diagnosis.   

Not long after Byetta’s release on the coattails of its success, Januvia, marketed by Merck & Co., arrived on the market.  From 2006-2011, Januvia raked in almost $10 billion dollars in sales.  Januvia is an oral DPP-4 inhibitor tablet also taken for Type-2 diabetes.  In the same vein as Byetta, Januvia interacts with the pancreas and liver, and FDA data suggests that the drug is linked to pancreatic cancer.  This connection is also supported by a study released by the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA), “DPP-4 inhibition may lead to impaired immune function and increased risk for cancers.”

The diabetes drug Janumet is a “combination therapy” for Type-2 diabetes in that one component of the drug is metformin and the other is sitagliptin (or Januvia, by its brand name).  Because Janumet has Januvia as one of its compounds, it too may have the associated risk of potentially fatal cancers inducing that of the pancreas.  

Another injectable Type-2 diabetes madication linked to cancer is Victoza.  Victoza has not only been linked to pancreatitis, and pancreatic cancer, but it has also been linked to thyroid cancer.  Lab tests on rats and mice indicated that Victoza possess a definite risk of thyroid cancer which “if medullary thyroid cancer occurs, it may lead to death if not detected and treated early.”

“While the drug companies will jump to claim that cancer can be caused by many factors, we can tell from the scientific studies that the relationship is much more than a mere coincidence,” said Robert Price, an attorney with Levin, Papantonio, Thomas, Mitchell, Rafferty, & Proctor P.A.  “I don’t think the role of these drugs in causing cancer in some patients can be denied at this point.”

With the FDA needing to review the threats that these drugs pose to patients, it seems to imply that the companies: Amylin Pharmaceuticals, Merck & Co., and Novo Nordisk Inc. (Victoza), were in a rush to get their products approved for sale without taking into account possible risks to consumers.  

Joshua de Leon is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire.