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Is Accutane as Dangerous as Initially Believed?

Posted: September 21, 2010

Fears that acne drugs such as Roche's Accutane could cause depression may have been overblown, since the condition itself is strongly linked to suicidal thoughts and depression, scientists said last week.

Levels of depression and suicidal thoughts were two or three times higher in young people who had the most severe acne than in those with little or none of the skin condition, Norwegian researchers found. The results suggested depressive side effects previously associated with acne medicines may be due to the condition—likely to be quite severe in those prescribed drugs for it— rather than the effects of the medication, they said.

"There is a pretty strong and consistent association between acne and symptoms of depression or mental health problems," said Jon Anders Halvorsen of Oslo University Hospital, whose study was published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology.

Accutane, which Swiss drugmaker Roche said last year it would stop selling because of generic competition, has had a controversial history since its 1982 launch. It is now available as a generic medicine, known as isotretinoin.

Although powerful at clearing acne, the drug has been linked to birth defects if taken during pregnancy and has also been suspected of causing mental side effects, although Roche has vigorously defended personal injury claims in this area. A study by Canadian scientists published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry in 2008 suggested isotretinoin might double the risk of developing depression.