Pfizer decided to pull the plug on this drug because a late phase clinical trial showed that 82 people had died so far, compared to 51 people in the same trial that had not taken it.

“I’m terribly disappointed,” said Dr. Steven E. Nissen, chairman of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic and lead investigator of an earlier torcetrapib clinical trial. “This drug, if it worked, would probably have been the largest-selling pharmaceutical in history.”

For people with heart disease, torcetrapib’s failure means that progress may be slowing after two decades of substantial advances against the disease. Medicines to lower blood pressure and bad cholesterol are already effective and widely used, yet heart disease remains the biggest cause of death in the United States, killing 911,000 people in 2003, according to the American Heart Association.

Because the torcetrapib-related deaths occurred during a clinical trial, before the drug reached the market, Pfizer will not face the product liability lawsuits that have dogged Merck over its painkiller, Vioxx. Merck withdrew Vioxx, a best-selling arthritis drug, after evidence emerged that it could cause heart strokes and heart attacks

It’s a shame that similiar actions were not performed by drug makers in the past where safety concerns were revealed during clinical trials, as what happened with drugs like Vioxx and Paxil. Torcetrapib could have been the next Vioxx had Pfizer decided to ignore or suppress these results.