Powerful breast-implant testimony constrained by limited evidence


What’s the role of anecdotal medical histories in the era of evidence-based medicine?

Dr. Pierre M. Chevray, plastic surgeon, Houston Methodist Hospital Mitchel L. Zoler/MDedge News

Dr. Pierre M. Chevray

Two days of testimony and discussion by a Food and Drug Administration advisory committee that gave new scrutiny to emerging complications and signals of complications in patients who received breast implants showed that powerful, emotion-filled vignettes from affected patients could engender sympathy and recommendations for action by an expert panel. But the anecdotal histories fell short of producing a clear committee consensus on dramatic, immediate changes in FDA policy, such as joining a renewed ban on certain types of breast implants linked with a rare lymphoma, a step recently taken by 38 other countries, including 33 European countries acting in concert through the European Union.

The disconnect between gripping testimony and limited panel recommendations was most stark for a complication that’s been named Breast Implant Illness (BII) by patients on the Internet. Many breast implant recipients have reported life-changing symptoms that appeared after implant placement, most often fatigue, joint and muscle pain, brain fog, neurologic symptoms, immune dysfunction, skin manifestations, and autoimmune disease or symptoms. By my count, 22 people spoke about their harrowing experiences with BII symptoms out of the 77 who stepped to the panel’s public-comment mic during 4 hours of public testimony over 2-days of hearings, often saying that they had experienced dramatic improvements after their implants came out. The meeting of the General and Plastic Surgery Devices Panel of the Medical Devices Advisory Committee also heard presentations from two experts who ran some of the first reported studies on BII, or a BII-like syndrome called Autoimmune Syndrome Induced by Adjuvants (ASIA) described by Jan W.C. Tervaert, MD, professor of medicine and director of rheumatology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Dr. Tervaert and his associates published their findings about ASIA in the rheumatology literature last year (Clin Rheumatol. 2018 Feb;37[2]:483-93), and during his talk before the FDA panel, he said that silicone breast implants and the surgical mesh often used with them could be ASIA triggers.

Panel members seemed to mostly believe that the evidence they heard about BII did no more than hint at a possible association between breast implants and BII symptoms that required additional study. Many agreed on the need to include mention of the most common BII-linked patient complaints in informed consent material, but some were reluctant about even taking that step.

Dr. Patricia A. McGuire, plastic surgeon, University of Chicago Mitchel L. Zoler/MDedge News

Dr. Patricia A. McGuire

“I do not mention BII to patients. It’s not a disease; it’s a constellation of symptoms,” said panel member and plastic surgeon Pierre M. Chevray, MD, from Houston Methodist Hospital. The evidence for BII “is extremely anecdotal,” he said in an interview at the end of the 2-day session. Descriptions of BII “have been mainly published on social media. One reason why I don’t tell patients [about BII as part of informed consent] is because right now the evidence of a link is weak. We don’t yet even have a definition of this as an illness. A first step is to define it,” said Dr. Chevray, who has a very active implant practice. Other plastic surgeons were more accepting of BII as a real complication, although they agreed it needs much more study. During the testimony period, St. Louis plastic surgeon Patricia A. McGuire, MD, highlighted the challenge of teasing apart whether real symptoms are truly related to implants or are simply common ailments that accumulate during middle-age in many women. Dr. McGuire and some of her associates published an assessment of the challenges and possible solutions to studying BII that appeared shortly before the hearing (Plast Reconstr Surg. 2019 March;143[3S]:74S-81S),

Consensus recommendations from the panel to the FDA to address BII included having a single registry that would include all U.S. patients who receive breast implants (recently launched as the National Breast Implant Registry), inclusion of a control group, and collection of data at baseline and after regular follow-up intervals that includes a variety of measures relevant to autoimmune and rheumatologic disorders. Several panel members cited inadequate postmarketing safety surveillance by manufacturers in the years since breast implants returned to the U.S. market, and earlier in March, the FDA issued warning letters to two of the four companies that market U.S. breast implants over their inadequate long-term safety follow-up.

The panel’s decisions about the other major implant-associated health risk it considered, breast implant associated anaplastic large cell lymphoma (BIA-ALCL), faced a different sort of challenge. First described as linked to breast implants in 2011, today there is little doubt that BIA-ALCL is a consequence of breast implants, what several patients derisively called a “man-made cancer.” The key issue the committee grappled with was whether the calculated incidence of BIA-ALCL was at a frequency that warranted a ban on at least selected breast implant types. Mark W. Clemens, MD, a plastic surgeon at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, told the panel that he calculated the Allergan Biocell group of implants, which have textured surfaces that allows for easier and more stable placement in patients, linked with an incidence of BIA-ALCL that was sevenfold to eightfold higher than that with smooth implants. That’s against a background of an overall incidence of about one case for every 20,000 U.S. implant recipients, Dr. Clemens said.

Many testifying patients, including several of the eight who described a personal history of BIA-ALCL, called for a ban on the sale of at least some breast implants because of their role in causing lymphoma. That sentiment was shared by Dr. Chevray, who endorsed a ban on “salt-loss” implants (the method that makes Biocell implants) during his closing comments to his fellow panel members. But earlier during panel discussions, others on the committee pushed back against implant bans, leaving the FDA’s eventual decision on this issue unclear. Evidence presented during the hearings suggests that implants cause ALCL by triggering a local “inflammatory milieu” and that different types of implants can have varying levels of potency for producing this milieu.

Dr. Karen E. Burke, dermatologist, New York Mitchel L. Zoler/MDedge News

Dr. Karen E. Burke

Perhaps the closest congruence between what patients called for and what the committee recommended was on informed consent. “No doubt, patients feel that informed consent failed them,” concluded panel member Karen E. Burke, MD, a New York dermatologist who was one of two panel discussants for the topic.

In addition to many suggestions on how to improve informed consent and public awareness lobbed at FDA staffers during the session by panel members, the final public comment of the 2 days came from Laurie A. Casas, MD, a Chicago plastic surgeon affiliated with the University of Chicago and a member of the board of directors of the American Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (also know as the Aesthetic Society). During her testimony, Dr. Casas said “Over the past 2 days, we heard that patients need a structured educational checklist for informed consent. The Aesthetic Society hears you,” and promised that the website of the Society’s publication, the Aesthetic Surgery Journal, will soon feature a safety checklist for people receiving breast implants that will get updated as new information becomes available. She also highlighted the need for a comprehensive registry and long-term follow-up of implant recipients by the plastic surgeons who treated them.

In addition to better informed consent, patients who came to the hearing clearly also hoped to raise awareness in the general American public about the potential dangers from breast implants and the need to follow patients who receive implants. The 2 days of hearing accomplished that in part just by taking place. The New York Times and The Washington Post ran at least a couple of articles apiece on implant safety just before or during the hearings, while a more regional paper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, ran one article, as presumably did many other newspapers, broadcast outlets, and websites across America. Much of the coverage focused on compelling and moving personal stories from patients.

Women who have been having adverse effects from breast implants “have felt dismissed,” noted panel member Natalie C. Portis, PhD, a clinical psychologist from Oakland, Calif., and the patient representative on the advisory committee. “We need to listen to women that something real is happening.”

Dr. Tervaert, Dr. Chevray, Dr. McGuire, Dr. Clemens, Dr. Burke, Dr. Casas, and Dr. Portis had no relevant commercial disclosures.

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