Power morcellation ban unlikely, but other FDA restrictions coming soon

Johnson & Johnson's Ethicon division's power morcellation device, which has been recalled since the controversy errupted--Courtesy of Johnson & Johnson

The doctor who brought the cancer risks posed by power morcellation to the attention of the public and the FDA protested what he described as "imminent plans to use legal mechanisms to functionally institute a 'registry of outcomes' or a 'probationary period' in order to avoid banning power morcellators from the marketplace," in an email to Commissioner Hamburg, various U.S. senators, White House officials and others obtained by FierceMedicalDevices.

Cardiac surgeon Hooman Noorchashm and wife, Amy Reed, an anesthesiologist, have led the charge against the controversial surgical technique performed using the drill-like power morcellator. Power morcellation can upstage preexisting uterine cancers like uterine sarcoma to fatal levels.

Noorchashm and Reed have sparked public outcry, an FDA safety notice and a recall of power morcellators by former market leader Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) via efforts like a petition on Change.org. Now they are aiming to take the campaign to its logical conclusion by securing an FDA ban of the device. That does not appear likely, according to information Noorchashm has received from a source within the FDA, who he wouldn't name during an interview.

Noorchashm described a power struggle within the FDA in the interview, saying, "My impression is that inside the FDA there are two groups of individuals: individuals who are more interested in advocating for industry interests and individuals who understand that the position of the FDA should be to protect patient safety and ensure patient safety. Those two groups of people are basically struggling."

The FDA's Office of Policy and Planning favors stricter action, but the agency's device arm, the Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH) is spearheading a plan to put the device on probation instead, he said.

"The imminent plan that the CDRH has is to sugarcoat this thing using a probationary mechanism. That would deflect any sort of criticism away from 510(k). It would deflect public criticism of anyone who says FDA didn't do anything. CDRH can comes out and says, 'Well we did something. We put out an FDA advisory and we put the device under probation.' That basically will give industry a chance to recover from an absolute medical atrocity," he said.

It is unclear what a probation would entail. During the FDA's public hearing on power morcellation, the agency discussed solutions such as enhanced informed consent requirements, the use of a surgical bag during morcellation and the need for improved testing of uterine sarcoma prior to surgery. A ban of power morcellators was also on the table, although agency officials didn't seem too intent on that option.

Central to the debate is the prevalence ratio of uterine sarcoma prior to power morcellation. The FDA estimates that the ratio is one women in 350.

A well-publicized paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimated that the rate of uterine cancer in women who underwent morcellation was one in 370. However, uterine sarcoma is a rare subset of uterine cancer that is more difficult to detect prior to surgery than other cancers of the uterus. Uterine sarcoma specifically is the main cause of concern among the FDA and other public health experts.

The paper's author, Dr. Jason Wright of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, said in an email to FierceMedicalDevices that he is unable to separate sarcomas or other subtypes of uterine cancer based on the insurance database. But he added, "I would assume that most cancers (in the sample) were not known preoperatively in women who underwent morcellation."

"Physicians who are defending this are saying the incidence (of uterine sarcoma in women undergoing morcellation) is one in 7,500," Noorchashm said, referring to research by obstetrician-gynecologist Elizabeth Pritts of the Wisconsin Fertility Institute.

Pritts spoke at the FDA public hearing and believes the agency is wildly overestimating the prevalence of uterine sarcoma because the agency used confirmation bias in its literature review used to arrive at its estimate of one in 350 women.

To add to the complexity, most experts assume that power morcellation poses a great chance of upstaging preexisting uterine sarcoma to fatal levels because it shreds and spreads the cancerous tissue to new parts of the body. However, in October Pritts and medical colleagues published a paper in the Journal of Minimally Invasive Gynecology concluding "there is no reliable evidence that morcellation (power or otherwise) significantly results in tumor upstaging."

"The new data by Dr. Pritts et al reveal that there is no proof that uterine morcellation upstages cancer. This is a critical discovery and changes the framework for discussion of how to care for the 31 million women with symptomatic fibroids," said gynecologic surgeon Antonio Pizarro in Shreveport, LA in an email. "Dr. Wright has issued a report of lapses in preoperative diagnosis for women with detectable cancers, not a report on sarcoma on women with fibroids."

Other members of the field favor strict action against power morcellators. "What you do about it is: you stop," said Robert Graebe, chairman and program director of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at NJ-based Monmouth Medical Center in a prior article in The Wall Street Journal, adding "it's not worth playing Russian roulette with the patient."

So far the FDA has only banned one device. In 1983 it outlawed prosthetic hair fibers. 

"The FDA is considering a great deal of information, including the panel's input, all comments from the public docket, and all relevant available data, in determining any future regulatory action. If the FDA decides to take further action, we will issue communication to inform manufacturers and the public, including notice in the Federal Register," said an FDA spokeswoman in an email to FierceMedicalDevices.

Meanwhile, the Democrat & Chronicle reports that a third Rochester, NY, woman has recently died of an undetected cancer two years after undergoing power morcellation.

- here is the email
- here's the article in the Democrat & Chronicle
- here's Dr. Pritt's paper abstract