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Health & Pregnancy

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Acne Drug/Suicide Connection Resurfaces

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Jan. 9, 2002 -- One year ago the FDA issued a statement about the potential for depression and suicide in teens taking the acne drug Accutane. And now, reports are surfacing that the 15-year-old pilot who crashed his plane into a skyscraper was prescribed the drug.

At this point, investigators don't know whether or not the teen, Charles J. Bishop, was actually taking Accutane at the time of his death. Blood tests should reveal in a couple of weeks if the drug was in his blood.

Accutane is very effective against severe acne, but has been wrought with controversy due to some devastating side effects. Doctors have known for years about the potential for birth defects in women who become pregnant while taking the drug. And near the end of 2000, more concern was raised about the potential for depression and even suicide.

In fact, Congress was deep in the midst of heated discussions, spurred partly by Rep. Bart Stupak (D, Mich.), whose son committed suicide while on Accutane.

In October 2000, the FDA said the drug had been associated with 44 suicides since 1983. But Stupak said his office's own analysis indicated that "in the last two-and-a-half years, there have been almost two suicides a month associated with the use of Accutane."

Roche, the makers of Accutane, sent a letter to doctors three-and-a-half years ago, alerting them to a new prescribing warning that states: "Accutane may cause depression, psychosis, and rarely, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, and suicide."

"There is evidence pointing to an association with depression," says an FDA spokeswoman, who spoke to WebMD in a previous interview on condition that her name not be used. "But there is not enough data to make a causal link between Accutane and psychiatric conditions."

Just over a year ago, Roche called the suicides "spontaneous." Roche said they simply reflected "the multiple risk factors in the adolescents and young adults afflicted with the disfiguring disease." The company also noted that the drug's label already warns that Accutane has been associated with depression and suicide, although a clear link has yet to be established.

And doctors say that the drug can be valuable. "This medication is wonderful, but it's not a drug to be taken lightly," Lisa Kauffman, MD, chief of dermatology at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, told WebMD in a prior interview. "It is the only cure we have for certain kinds of acne."

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