In June the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the marketing of a genetically engineered form of erythropoietin (EPO) for use in treating anemia in patients with severe kidney disease. EPO is a hormone produced in the kidney that stimulates the growth of red blood cells. The new drug, epoetin alfa (sold under the name Epogen), was expected to benefit many of the more than 90,000 people in the United States who regularly undergo dialysis to remove toxic chemicals from their blood because their kidneys have failed. Dialysis destroys red blood cells, making the patients anemic. Also, many dialysis patients require frequent transfusions, which lead to a toxic buildup of iron (from destroyed red cells) in their blood; EPO should ease that problem.
Later in June the FDA gave limited approval for another use of EPO. The drug was authorized as an ‘investigational new drug for treatment,’ for use in people with AIDS who suffer from anemia, either from the virus that causes the disease or because they are taking zidovudine (previously called AZT) to control the disease’s progression. Zidovudine kills red blood cells, and EPO helps to replace them.