IT IS very rare for new evidence to question or even negate the utility of a well-established class of drugs. But after four decades as a standard therapy for heart disease and high blood pressure, it looks like this fate will befall beta blockers. Two major studies published within about a week of each other suggest that the drugs do not work for these conditions. This is a big surprise, with big implications.
The first beta blocker, Inderal, was launched in 1964 by Imperial Chemical Industries for treatment of angina. This drug has been hailed as one of great medical advances of the 20th century. Its inventor, James Black, was awarded the Nobel prize in medicine in 1988.
The 20 or so beta blockers now on the market are very widely used - almost 200 million prescriptions were written for them in the US in 2010. They are standard issue for most people with heart disease or high blood pressure. This may now change.
A large study published last month in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that beta blockers did not prolong the lives of patients - a revelation that must have left many cardiologists shaking their heads (JAMA, vol 308, p 1340).
The researchers followed almost 45,000 heart patients over three-and-a-half years and found that beta blockers did not reduce the risk of heart attacks, deaths from heart attacks, or stroke.