Questions Arise Again on Vytorin Cancer Risk

Two reports and an editorial in "The New England Journal of Medicine" are raising questions again about the potentially higher risk of death from cancer associated with a popular cholesterol-fighting drug.

An analysis of three large studies of Vytorin from Merck and Schering-Plough counts 134 cancer-related deaths among patients taking the drug versus 92 deaths in patients getting a placebo or the cholesterol drug Zocor.

Some experts and the companies say the higher number of fatalities is due to chance and an anomaly.

But researchers in NEJM say the difference is cause for concern and warrants further study.

In addition, a NEJM editorial says, "It is appropriate to raise a note of caution," and that doctors and patients "are left, for now, with uncertainty about the efficacy and safety of the drug."

Vytorin is a mixture of Merck's Zocor and Schering-Plough's Zetia. Vytorin and Zetia prescriptions have fallen, as well as the stock prices of Merck and Schering-Plough, since a piece of the cancer data and another study about the drugs' efficacy were released over the past several months.

Last year, the companies sold around $5 billion worth of the pills.