Image: Robert Jarvik
Dr. Robert Jarvik pops up all over the Lipitor Web site.
By Robert Bazell Chief science and health correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/1/2007 9:38:12 AM ET 2007-03-01T14:38:12

Would you buy a heart medication from someone whose own efforts to cure heart disease led to failure?

Apparently, many people do. 

Dr. Robert Jarvik’s ubiquitous appearances as a pitchman for Pfizer’s cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor  have worked well, according to Rich Thomaselli of Advertising Age. Thomaselli notes that third-quarter sales for Lipitor hit $3.3 billion, a 15 percent increase over the same period last year.  Particularly impressive, he points out, because Lipitor already was the world’s best-selling drug — generating income of $13 billion last year alone .

Pfizer, the maker of Lipitor, needs Jarvik and all the help it can get more than ever. Lipitor’s patent expires in 2010 and torcetrapib, the drug due to take its place, just flamed out in clinical trials. Pfizer was hoping the new drug would equal or exceed the sales of Lipitor. Now it is gone .

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But who is Robert Jarvik and why is he such an effective spokesman for the drug?

Familiar name
The ads work, I suspect, because Jarvik was quite a celebrity in the world of heart disease in the early- and mid-1980s — long enough ago that many of the people old enough to require heart medication remember the name, but aren’t quite sure what he accomplished.

Jarvik is a medical doctor, but not with the strongest credentials. When he finished Syracuse University his grades did not permit entry into a U.S. medical school. So, he enrolled at the University of Bologna, Italy, but left after two years. Eventually Jarvik decided the mechanical aspects of the body fascinated him and he earned a master’s degree in medical engineering from New York University.

After that he went to work for Dr. Willem Kolff, a Dutch born physician-inventor at the University of Utah who produced the first dialysis machine and was working on other artificial organs, including a heart. Kolff quickly assumed the role of Jarvik’s mentor and helped him earn an M.D. from the University of Utah in 1976, although Jarvik neither took an internship nor practiced medicine.

Amy Sancetta  /  AP
The patent for Lipitor, the world's best-selling drug, expires in 2010.

Jarvik’s work on mechanical heart pumps in Kolff’s lab culminated with the Jarvik 7, the first of his devices to be put into a human. It was not the first test of an artificial heart — Texas surgeon Dr. Denton Cooley kept a patient alive for 60 hours with one in 1969. But the Jarvik 7 was based on a solid body of animal studies and was intended to be a permanent replacement for the human heart.

With the help of the University of Utah’s major push for publicity, the first attempt to put the device into a human attracted enormous worldwide interest. The auditorium was packed on Dec. 2, 1982, as university officials announced the name of the first recipient: Barney Clark, a dentist who suffered life-threatening heart failure.

Most people assumed the device would either work or not. It wasn’t so simple. Clark held on for 112 days suffering a series of complications.

During frequent press conferences to update the patient's condition, Jarvik (inexplicably wearing surgical scrubs), along with the head surgeon Dr. William DeVries, briefed the world’s media on Clark’s condition. Jarvik appeared regularly in newspapers on magazine covers and on TV news.

'Dracula of Medical Technology'
A few years later the artificial heart experiments and the media circus that accompanied them (full disclosure: I was part of it) migrated from Utah to the Humana Corporation hospital chain, headquartered in Louisville, Ky.

William Schroeder, the patient who lived the longest with the Jarvik 7, famously woke up after the surgery and asked for a beer. But he soon suffered a series of debilitating strokes and died 620 mostly miserable days after the surgery.

On May 16, 1988, an editorial in the New York Times dubbed the artificial heart experiments, “The Dracula of Medical Technology.”

“The crude machines,” it continued, “with their noisy pumps, simply wore out the human body and spirit.”

Since then, in a series of start-up companies, Jarvik has continued his quest to make an artificial heart — as have several other firms. One competitor recently won FDA approval to sell its device for implantation in extreme emergencies.

Perhaps Jarvik’s chances of success with another artificial heart account for his willingness to serve as pitchman for Pfizer. I inquired, without success, to find the going rate for a semi- celebrity like Jarvik to appear in such ads. Thomaselli of Advertising Age said whatever it is, it is “infinitesimal” compared to Pfizer’s expenditures of $11 billion a year on advertising, much of it for Lipitor.

Why spend so much marketing Lipitor? 

Because Lipitor is only one of six drugs in the class called statins that lower cholesterol. Many cardiologists say that for the vast majority of people any one of these drugs works just as well as the other. Two of them, Mevacor and Zocor, have already lost their patent protection so they cost pennies a day compared to $3 or more a day for Lipitor.

In 2010, when Lipitor loses its patent protection, it, too, will cost pennies a day, and Pfizer will no longer need Dr. Robert Jarvik.

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