Accutane Embryopathy

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Accutane embryopathy


Accutane is commonly used to treat severe acne that has not responded to other forms of treatment. Accutane embryopathy refers to the pattern of birth defects that may be caused in an embryo that is exposed to Accutane during pregnancy. Accutane-related birth defects typically include physical abnormalities of the face, ears, heart, and brain.


Accutane is one of several man-made drugs derived from vitamin A. The generic name for Accutane is isotretinoin. Accutane and other vitamin A-derivatives are referred to as retinoids. Vitamin A is an essential nutrient for normal growth and development. It is found in foods such as green leafy and yellow vegetables, oranges, pineapple, cantaloupe, liver, egg yolks, and butter. It is also available in multivitamins and separately as a daily supplement. Vitamin A is important in a number of biological processes. Included among these is the growth and differentiation of the epithelium, the cells that form the outer layer of skin as well as some of the layers beneath. Deficiency of vitamin A may lead to increased susceptibility to infection and problems with vision and growth of skin cells. The potential risks of supplemental vitamin A in a person's diet have been a matter of some debate. However, excess vitamin A during pregnancy does not seem to be associated with an increased risk for birth defects.

The same cannot be said for drugs derived from vitamin A. Accutane, like other retinoids, displays some of the same biologic properties as vitamin A, such as its role in stimulating the growth of epithelium. For this reason, it is an effective method of treatment for severe cases of nodular acne, a condition characterized by cystic, painful, scarring lesions. Four to five months of Accutane treatment usually leads to clearing of the acne for one year or more, even after the medicine is stopped. Accutane may also be prescribed for moderate acne that has not responded to other forms of treatment, usually antibiotics taken every day by mouth. Milder cases of acne that produce scarring or other related skin disorders may also be treated with this medication. Often, dermatologists prescribe Accutane only after other methods of treatment have been unsuccessful.

Common side effects of Accutane are chapped lips, dry skin with itching, mild nosebleeds, joint and muscle pain, and temporary thinning of hair. Depression , including thoughts of suicide, has been reported more recently as another, much more serious, potential side effect. Severe acne on its own is associated with lower self-esteem. No studies have been published to try to determine if Accutane use somehow makes it more likely for a person to be depressed or to attempt suicide.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of Accutane in September 1982. It had previously been shown to cause birth defects in animals. Consequently, its approval was granted with the provision that the drug label would describe its risk of causing birth defects. The patient information brochure also included information for women taking the medication about avoiding preganancy.

The first report of an infant with Accutane-related birth defects was published in 1983. At least ten additional cases were subsequently reported to the FDA and Centers for Disease Control (CDC). A pattern of birth defects involving the head, ears, face, and heart was identified. In 1985, Dr. Edward Lammer reviewed a total of 154 pregnancies exposed to Accutane. Each of the pregnancies had included use of the drug during the first three months of pregnancy. This period, referred to as the first trimester, is a critical and sensitive time during which all of the organs begin to develop. Chemical insults during this part of pregnancy often result in abnormal formation of internal organs with or without external abnormalities.

Each of the 154 pregnancies had been voluntarily reported to either the FDA or CDC. The pregnancy outcomes included 95 elective pregnancy terminations and 59 continuing pregnancies. Of these, twelve (20%) ended in a spontaneous pregnancy loss, or miscarriage. The remaining 47 pregnancies resulted in six stillborn infants with obvious abnormalities, 18 live born infants with abnormalities, and 26 apparently normal babies. The abnormalities observed among the stillborn and living infants were similar, most frequently involving the head, face, heart, and central nervous system. Thus, use of Accutane during the first several months of pregnancy was shown to be associated with an increased risk of pregnancy loss (miscarriage or stillbirth) as well as with a significant risk of birth defects in living children. This pattern of abnormalities has since become known as Accutane embryopathy. The term >retinoic acid embryopathy is also occasionally used to describe the same condition because other retinoids, such as Tegison (etretinate), have been associated with a similar pattern of birth defects. Tegison is commonly used to treat severe psoriasis and can cause birth defects even if stopped years before becoming pregnant.

Genetic profile

Accutane embryopathy (AE) is not an inherited or hereditary type of abnormality. Rather, it is caused by exposure of a developing embryo to the drug, Accutane, during the first trimester of pregnancy. Accutane is a well known, powerful teratogen , or agent that causes physical or mental abnormalities in an embryo. Use any-time after the fifteenth day after conception, or approximately four weeks of pregnancy dating from the first day of the mother's last menstrual period, is associated with a significantly increased risk for pregnancy loss or an infant with AE. The dose of Accutane is unimportant. If Accutane is stopped prior to conception, no increased risk for loss or birth defects is expected.


The total number of women of reproductive age (15-44 years old) taking Accutane is unknown. However, since the 1990s, the overall number of prescriptions written for Accutane has increased over two hundred percent. Prescriptions are evenly divided between men and women, but women 30 years old or younger account for 80% of the patients among their sex.

A Dermatologic and Ophthalmic Drug Advisory Committee was convened at the FDA in September 2000. Patterns of Accutane use and the outcomes of Accutane-exposed pregnancies were presented at this meeting. Two overlapping sources of pregnancy data exist: one sponsored by the manufacturer of the drug, Roche Laboratories, and a second study maintained by the Slone Epidemiology Unit at the Boston University School of Public Health. Representatives from both institutions reviewed their outcome data up to that time. This data supports previous estimates of the frequency of AE.

A total of 1,995 exposed pregnancies have been reported between the years 1982 and 2000. These pregnancies have been voluntarily reported either directly to the manufacturer or to the Slone Survey. Although doctors have referred some, a majority of participating women obtained the appropriate phone numbers from the insert included with their medication. Elective terminations of pregnancy were performed in 1,214 pregnancies. Spontaneous pregnancy losses were reported in 213 pregnancies and 383 infants were delivered. Of these, 162, or 42%, were born with malformations consistent with AE.

The numbers from the Slone Survey, which began in 1989, represent a large subset of the data reported by Roche. Any woman to whom Accutane is prescribed is invited to contact and participate in the project. As of September 2000, the survey had identified a total of 1,019 pregnancies out of more than 300,000 women enrolled. Some women were already pregnant when they had started Accutane but others conceived while taking the drug. The pregnancy data allows for examination of the risk factors that lead to becoming pregnant as well as the pregnancy outcomes. Among the 1,019 pregnancies that occurred, 681 were electively terminated, 177 resulted in a spontaneous loss, and 117 infants were delivered. Only 60 of these infants were either examined or had medical records available to review. Eight of the 60 (13%) were diagnosed with AE. No information was available on the remaining 57 pregnancies.

Each couple in the general population has a background risk of 34% of having a child with any type of congenital birth defect. The medical literature has suggested a 25–35% risk of AE in infants exposed to Accutane prenatally. The combined Roche and Slone Survey data provided a risk of 42%. Although consistent with the medical literature, this slightly higher number probably reflects some bias in reporting. In other words, some mothers may report their pregnancy only after the birth of a child with AE. Normal births may go unreported. This type of retrospective analysis is not as helpful as prospective reporting in which pregnancies are enrolled before the outcome is known. To ensure objective reporting, the Slone Survey only enrolls their participants prospectively, ideally before the end of the first trimester of pregnancy. Even still, the Slone Survey estimates that it likely only has information on roughly 40% of all Accutane-exposed pregnancies.

Signs and symptoms

AE is characterized by a number of major and minor malformations. Each abnormality is not present in every affected individual.


  • Malformed ears. Abnormalities of the ears, when present, involve both ears but may show different levels of severity ranging from mild external abnormalities to a very small or missing ear.
  • Underdevelopment of the skull and facial bones. This leads to a specific facial features including a sharply sloping forehead, small jaw (micrognathia), flattened bridge of the nose, and an abnormal size and/or placing of the eye sockets and eyes.


  • Structural defects, most of which require surgery to correct.

Central nervous systerm

  • Hydrocephalus , or abnormal accumulation of fluid within the brain. This is the most common type of brain abnormality and often is treated by placement of a shunt within the head to drain the fluid.
  • Small head size (microcephaly)
  • Structural or functional brain abnormalities
  • Mild to moderate mental retardation or learning disabilities later in life. Either may be present even in the absence of physical abnormalities.


  • Abnormal or very small thymus gland
  • Cleft palate, or opening in the roof of the mouth


A diagnosis of AE is based on two pieces of information: (1) report of Accutane use by the mother during the first trimester of pregnancy, and (2) recognition of the physical abnormalities in an exposed infant. The latter is accomplished by a physical examination by a doctor familiar with AE. Special studies of the heart, such as ultrasound, may be required after delivery to determine the specific nature of any structural heart defect.

Prenatal diagnosis is theoretically possible armed with the knowledge of early pregnancy exposure. A prenatal ultrasound evaluation may detect abnormalities such as heart defects, hydrocephalus or microcephaly, or some craniofacial abnormalities. However, not all features of AE will be apparent even with ultrasound, and a careful examination after delivery is still indicated.

Treatment and management

The care of an infant with AE after delivery is primarily symptomatic. Infants with serious heart abnormalities will need to be evaluated by a heart specialist and may require surgery in order to survive. Infants with brain abnormalities, such as hydrocephalus may require shunt placement soon after birth and monitoring by a brain surgeon on a regular basis. Ear malformations may be associated with hearing loss in affected children. Depending on the severity of the ear abnormality, sign language may be needed for communication. Some infants with very severe internal birth defects, particularly of the heart, may die at a young age.

Based on the features associated with AE and the long-term medical care that may be required, the focus of the manufacturer of Accutane has long been on the prevention of as many pregnancies as possible. Roche Laboratories has made numerous efforts since 1982 to achieve this, including periodic changes in the drug label and attempts to increase doctor and consumer awareness about the teratogenic nature of Accutane during pregnancy.

In 1988, Roche developed the Accutane Pregnancy Prevention Program (PPP). It was fully implemented in mid-1989. The goal of the PPP was to develop educational materials about Accutane for both patients and their doctors. A PPP kit included a consent form and a patient information brochure. Prescribing physicians were encouraged to obtain informed consent from all of their patients after a verbal discussion of the risks and benefits of the drug. Pregnancy tests were strongly encouraged prior to beginning treatment. The patient information brochure included information about, as well as a toll-free phone number for, the patient referral program sponsored by Roche. The program offered to reimburse women for the cost of a visit to their doctor to review effective methods of birth control. Finally, warnings about the risks associated with Accutane were printed directly on the box and the individual drug packages.

An Accutane tracking study was implemented to evaluate how often doctors were using the PPP kit and following other major components of the program. The results of the study revealed that many doctors were inclined to rely only on oral communication about Accutane with their patients rather than using each of the elements of the PPP kit. The patient brochure was frequently used but other components of the kit were considered inconvenient and too time-consuming. Both Roche and the FDA agreed that certain parts of the PPP needed strengthening.

Additional support came in the form of a report published in the CDC-sponsored periodical, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), in January 2000. A group of 23 women was identified in California, all of whom had taken Accutane while pregnant. During March 1999, a representative from the CDC interviewed a total of 14 of these women in an attempt to learn why pregnancies exposed to Accutane continued to occur despite the efforts of the PPP. Five women had electively terminated their pregnancies and had no information on whether birth defects had been present in the fetus. Four women experienced a spontaneous pregnancy loss, and four infants were born without obvious abnormalities. The last infant was born with features of AE, including a complex heart defect, hydrocephalus, and abnormal facial features. He subsequently died at the age of nine weeks.

Of greater interest to the authors, however, were some of the factors that contributed to the occurrence of these pregnancies in the first place. Some of the women had obtained Accutane from a source other than their doctor, such as in another country or from an associate. Another woman reported using medication left over from a previous prescription. In other cases, the prescription was filled before a pregnancy test was performed (usually the woman was already pregnant) or was started before day two or three of her menstrual period.

In March 1999, Roche submitted plans to the FDA for its revised Targeted Pregnancy Prevention Program. Over the course of the year 2000, the Targeted PPP was put into place, and efforts were resumed to educate doctors and patients alike. In May 2000, the FDA approved a new label for all Accutane packages. The label now includes the following recommendations:

  • Two independent pregnancy tests are required, one before treatment begins and the next on the second day of the next normal menstrual period or 11 days after the last unprotected act of sexual intercourse, whichever is later.
  • The prescription cannot be filled without a report from a physician documenting a negative pregnancy test result.
  • If treatment is started while a woman has her menstrual period, it should be started on the second to third day of her period.
  • Only a one-month supply of the drug will be given at a time.
  • Two reliable forms of birth control, one primary, another secondary, must be used at the same time before treatment starts, during treatment, and one month after treatment ends. Examples of a primary method of birth control include birth control pills, a history of a sterilization procedure, such as a tubal ligation or vasectomy, or other form of injectable or implantable birth control product. Examples of a secondary form of birth control include use of a diaphragm, condom, or cervical cap, each with spermicide.
  • Monthly contraceptive and pregnancy counseling are required as are monthly pregnancy tests.

The FDA's Dermatologic and Ophthalmic Drug Advisory Committee additionally recommended that doctors and their patients participate in a mandatory Accutane registry. Such a registry would be used to track how well prescribers and patients follow the elements of the Targeted PPP, such as pregnancy tests, informed consent, and use of birth control. A similar system has been developed to regulate the use of the drug thalidomide, another powerful human teratogen. Additionally, a centralized database could be maintained to track the outcomes of all Accutane-exposed pregnancies. As of early 2001, such a registry had not yet been established.

The possibility of a registry has met with criticism from professional organizations such as the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). Critics have charged that a mandatory registry system would restrict access to the drug, particularly for those individuals with severe acne who may live in rural areas or otherwise do not have access to a doctor who is a member of the registry. The AAD agrees that education about Accutane as well as its potential hazards and safe and responsible use of the drug are of utmost importance.

To date, none of the efforts put forth by the drug manufacturer or the medical community has been 100% effective. Pregnancies while women are taking Accutane are still occurring, and infants with AE are still being born. As highlighted by the recent MMWR report, establishment of a registry or other strict methods of control are still unlikely to completely eliminate the birth of children with AE. It is possible in some cases to obtain Accutane without using the services of a knowledgeable physician. Also, many pregnancies are unplanned and unexpected. Since first trimester exposure to Accutane may have serious consequences, time is of the essence in preventing as many prenatal exposures as possible. Doctors and their patients need to be equally attentive to the prevention of pregnancies and, thus, the continuing births of children with AE.


Accutane is a safe and highly effective drug when used properly. However, Accutane embryopathy is a serious medical condition that is directly related to a mother's use of Accutane during the first trimester of her pregnancy. Although most individuals with AE will have a normal lifespan, others may die at a young age due to complex internal abnormalities. Mild or moderate mental handicap is common even when there are no obvious physical features of AE.



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Terri A. Knutel, MS, CGC