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Beware the ghosts of medical research

How Big Pharma has developed new forms of ‘research’ to serve their own interests

A version of this commentary appeared in the Mark News, Troy Media and Times & Transcript

The medical research world has been concerned about the problem of ghostwriting for more than a decade. Over the few past years, the issue has been repeatedly raised in the mainstream media.  Most of the commentary has focused on the ethics of academics serving as authors on papers they did not write and on some of the most egregious actions by pharmaceutical companies.

But these efforts miss the ways in which Big Pharma has developed new forms of medical research to serve its own interests.

How Ghostwriting Feeds Big Pharma Profits

Big Pharma firms spend twice as much on promotion as on R&D. But it is worse than that: more and more medical R&D is organized as promotional campaigns to make physicians aware of products. The bulk of the industry’s external funding for research now goes to contract research organizations to produce studies that feed into large numbers of articles submitted to medical journals.

Internal documents from Pfizer, made public in litigation, showed that 85 scientific articles on its antidepressant Zoloft were produced and coordinated by a public relations company. Pfizer itself thus produced a critical mass of the favorable articles placed among the 211 scientific papers on Zoloft in the same period. Internal documents tell similar stories for Merck’s Vioxx, GlaxoSmithKline’s Paxil, Astra-Zeneca’s Seroquel, and Wyeth’s hormone-replacement drugs.

To promote the now-notorious Vioxx, Merck organized a ghostwriting campaign that involved some 96 scientific articles. Key ones did not mention the death of some patients during clinical trials. Through a class action lawsuit against Vioxx in Australia, it was discovered that Elsevier had created a fake medical journal for Merck — the Australasian Journal of Joint and Bone Medicine — and perhaps ten other fake journals for Merck and other Big Pharma companies.

In another example, GlaxoSmithKline organized a ghostwriting program to promote its antidepressant Paxil. According to internal documents made public in 2009, the program was called “Case Study Publication for Peer-Review”, or CASPPER, a playful reference to the “friendly ghost”. Such strategies are not exceptions; they are now the norm in the industry. Most new drugs with blockbuster potential are introduced accompanied by 50, 60, or even 100 medical journal articles. Any firm that refused to play this game in the name of ethics would likely lose market share. Profits in the pharmaceutical industry depend on companies’ capacity to influence medical knowledge and create market share and market niches for their products.

A Call for Evidence-Based Medicine

In 2008, research showed that pharmaceutical companies systematically failed to publish negative studies on their SSRIs, the Prozac generation of antidepressants. Of 74 clinical trials, 38 produced positive results and 36 did not: 94% of the positive studies were published, but only 23% of the negative ones were, and two-thirds of those were spun to make them look more positive.

Physicians reading the scientific literature got a biased view of the benefits of SSRIs. This helps to explain the huge number of antidepressant prescriptions, in spite of the fact that, according to a meta-analysis in JAMA in January 2010, for 70% of people taking SSRIs, the drug did not bring more benefits than a placebo. Compared to placebo, however, SSRI antidepressants can result in serious adverse drug reactions.

There we see one of the problems with the ghost management of medical research and publication. Pharmaceutical companies want upbeat reports on their drugs. They design, write, and publish studies that are likely to show their drugs in positive lights — and there are myriad ways to do so. Ghosts sometimes bend the truth, and sometimes even commit fraud, with grave results.

Why do academics serve as authors on scientific articles they did not write, using research they did not perform? Because they are rewarded, both by their universities and by their colleagues for how much they publish and for its prominence. Pharmaceutical companies and their agents are very good at placing articles in prestigious journals, and then make them even more prominent by having their armies of sales reps circulate them and talk them up.

Researchers who serve as authors on studies and analyses (perhaps scientifically correct) that are favorable to the industry can expect to see these articles increase their prestige and influence, and possibly even funding.

What happens, however, when a researcher produces studies and analyses (also scientifically correct) showing that some products are dangerous or inefficient, as some did about Vioxx before the scandal broke? Reading Merck’s internal e-mails, revealed during the class lawsuit, it was exposed that the company drew up a hit list of “rogue” researchers who needed to be “discredited” or “neutralized”—“seek them out and destroy them where they live,” reads one e-mail. Eight Stanford researchers say they received threats from Merck after publishing unfavorable results.

Corporate Science

In the ghost management of research and publication by drug companies we have a new model of science. This is corporate science, done by many unseen workers, performed for marketing purposes, and drawing its authority from traditional academic science. The high commercial stakes mean that all of the parties connected with this new corporate science can find reasons or be induced to participate, support, and steadily normalize it. It also biases the available science by pushing favorable results and downplaying negative ones — and sometimes through outright fraud.

As long as pharmaceutical companies hold the purse strings of medical research, medical knowledge will serve to market drugs, not to promote health. And as long as universities grovel for more partnerships with these companies, the door will remain wide open to proceed with the corruption of scientific research.

Dr. Marc-André Gagnon is assistant professor with the School of Public Policy and Administration at Carleton University.  He is also an expert advisor with EvidenceNetwork.ca.  Dr. Sergio Sismondo is professor of Philosophy and Sociology at Queen’s University.  His current research is on the pharmaceutical industry’s relationships with academic medicine and practicing physicians.

May 2011


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