• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Drug Companies & Doctors: A Story of Corruption

A Note to Readers

angell_1-011509.jpg
An advertisement for Paxil in The American Journal of Psychiatry, October 1999; from Christopher Lane’s Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness. Paxil is one of the drugs about which unfavorable research has been suppressed by pharmaceutical companies.

Recently Senator Charles Grassley, ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, has been looking into financial ties between the pharmaceutical industry and the academic physicians who largely determine the market value of prescription drugs. He hasn’t had to look very hard.

Take the case of Dr. Joseph L. Biederman, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and chief of pediatric psychopharmacology at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital. Thanks largely to him, children as young as two years old are now being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and treated with a cocktail of powerful drugs, many of which were not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for that purpose and none of which were approved for children below ten years of age.

Legally, physicians may use drugs that have already been approved for a particular purpose for any other purpose they choose, but such use should be based on good published scientific evidence. That seems not to be the case here. Biederman’s own studies of the drugs he advocates to treat childhood bipolar disorder were, as The New York Times summarized the opinions of its expert sources, “so small and loosely designed that they were largely inconclusive.”1

In June, Senator Grassley revealed that drug companies, including those that make drugs he advocates for childhood bipolar disorder, had paid Biederman $1.6 million in consulting and speaking fees between 2000 and 2007. Two of his colleagues received similar amounts. After the revelation, the president of the Massachusetts General Hospital and the chairman of its physician organization sent a letter to the hospital’s physicians expressing not shock over the enormity of the conflicts of interest, but sympathy for the beneficiaries: “We know this is an incredibly painful time for these doctors and their families, and our hearts go out to them.”

Or consider Dr. Alan F. Schatzberg, chair of Stanford’s psychiatry department and president-elect of the American Psychiatric Association. Senator Grassley found that Schatzberg controlled more than $6 million worth of stock in Corcept Therapeutics, a company he cofounded that is testing mifepristone—the abortion drug otherwise known as RU-486—as a treatment for psychotic depression. At the same time, Schatzberg was the principal investigator on a National Institute of Mental Health grant that included research on mifepristone for this use and he was coauthor of three papers on the subject. In a statement released in late June, Stanford professed to see nothing amiss in this arrangement, although a month later, the university’s counsel announced that it was temporarily replacing Schatzberg as principal investigator “to eliminate any misunderstanding.”

Perhaps the most egregious case exposed so far by Senator Grassley is that of Dr. Charles B. Nemeroff, chair of Emory University’s department of psychiatry and, along with Schatzberg, coeditor of the influential Textbook of Psychopharmacology.2 Nemeroff was the principal investigator on a five-year $3.95 million National Institute of Mental Health grant—of which $1.35 million went to Emory for overhead—to study several drugs made by GlaxoSmithKline. To comply with university and government regulations, he was required to disclose to Emory income from GlaxoSmithKline, and Emory was required to report amounts over $10,000 per year to the National Institutes of Health, along with assurances that the conflict of interest would be managed or eliminated.

But according to Senator Grassley, who compared Emory’s records with those from the company, Nemeroff failed to disclose approximately $500,000 he received from GlaxoSmithKline for giving dozens of talks promoting the company’s drugs. In June 2004, a year into the grant, Emory conducted its own investigation of Nemeroff’s activities, and found multiple violations of its policies. Nemeroff responded by assuring Emory in a memorandum, “In view of the NIMH/Emory/GSK grant, I shall limit my consulting to GSK to under $10,000/year and I have informed GSK of this policy.” Yet that same year, he received $171,031 from the company, while he reported to Emory just $9,999—a dollar shy of the $10,000 threshold for reporting to the National Institutes of Health.

Emory benefited from Nemeroff’s grants and other activities, and that raises the question of whether its lax oversight was influenced by its own conflicts of interest. As reported by Gardiner Harris in TheNew York Times,3 Nemeroff himself had pointed out his value to Emory in a 2000 letter to the dean of the medical school, in which he justified his membership on a dozen corporate advisory boards by saying:

Surely you remember that Smith-Kline Beecham Pharmaceuticals donated an endowed chair to the department and there is some reasonable likelihood that Janssen Pharmaceuticals will do so as well. In addition, Wyeth-Ayerst Pharmaceuticals has funded a Research Career Development Award program in the department, and I have asked both AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals and Bristol-Meyers [sic] Squibb to do the same. Part of the rationale for their funding our faculty in such a manner would be my service on these boards.

Because these psychiatrists were singled out by Senator Grassley, they received a great deal of attention in the press, but similar conflicts of interest pervade medicine. (The senator is now turning his attention to cardiologists.) Indeed, most doctors take money or gifts from drug companies in one way or another. Many are paid consultants, speakers at company-sponsored meetings, ghost-authors of papers written by drug companies or their agents,4 and ostensible “researchers” whose contribution often consists merely of putting their patients on a drug and transmitting some token information to the company. Still more doctors are recipients of free meals and other out-and-out gifts. In addition, drug companies subsidize most meetings of professional organizations and most of the continuing medical education needed by doctors to maintain their state licenses.

No one knows the total amount provided by drug companies to physicians, but I estimate from the annual reports of the top nine US drug companies that it comes to tens of billions of dollars a year. By such means, the pharmaceutical industry has gained enormous control over how doctors evaluate and use its own products. Its extensive ties to physicians, particularly senior faculty at prestigious medical schools, affect the results of research, the way medicine is practiced, and even the definition of what constitutes a disease.

Consider the clinical trials by which drugs are tested in human subjects.5 Before a new drug can enter the market, its manufacturer must sponsor clinical trials to show the Food and Drug Administration that the drug is safe and effective, usually as compared with a placebo or dummy pill. The results of all the trials (there may be many) are submitted to the FDA, and if one or two trials are positive—that is, they show effectiveness without serious risk—the drug is usually approved, even if all the other trials are negative. Drugs are approved only for a specified use—for example, to treat lung cancer—and it is illegal for companies to promote them for any other use.

But physicians may prescribe approved drugs “off label”—i.e., without regard to the specified use—and perhaps as many as half of all prescriptions are written for off-label purposes. After drugs are on the market, companies continue to sponsor clinical trials, sometimes to get FDA approval for additional uses, sometimes to demonstrate an advantage over competitors, and often just as an excuse to get physicians to prescribe such drugs for patients. (Such trials are aptly called “seeding” studies.)

Since drug companies don’t have direct access to human subjects, they need to outsource their clinical trials to medical schools, where researchers use patients from teaching hospitals and clinics, or to private research companies (CROs), which organize office-based physicians to enroll their patients. Although CROs are usually faster, sponsors often prefer using medical schools, in part because the research is taken more seriously, but mainly because it gives them access to highly influential faculty physicians—referred to by the industry as “thought-leaders” or “key opinion leaders” (KOLs). These are the people who write textbooks and medical journal papers, issue practice guidelines (treatment recommendations), sit on FDA and other governmental advisory panels, head professional societies, and speak at the innumerable meetings and dinners that take place every year to teach clinicians about prescription drugs. Having KOLs like Dr. Biederman on the payroll is worth every penny spent.

A few decades ago, medical schools did not have extensive financial dealings with industry, and faculty investigators who carried out industry-sponsored research generally did not have other ties to their sponsors. But schools now have their own manifold deals with industry and are hardly in a moral position to object to their faculty behaving in the same way. A recent survey found that about two thirds of academic medical centers hold equity interest in companies that sponsor research within the same institution.6 A study of medical school department chairs found that two thirds received departmental income from drug companies and three fifths received personal income.7 In the 1980s medical schools began to issue guidelines governing faculty conflicts of interest but they are highly variable, generally quite permissive, and loosely enforced.

Because drug companies insist as a condition of providing funding that they be intimately involved in all aspects of the research they sponsor, they can easily introduce bias in order to make their drugs look better and safer than they are. Before the 1980s, they generally gave faculty investigators total responsibility for the conduct of the work, but now company employees or their agents often design the studies, perform the analysis, write the papers, and decide whether and in what form to publish the results. Sometimes the medical faculty who serve as investigators are little more than hired hands, supplying patients and collecting data according to instructions from the company.

In view of this control and the conflicts of interest that permeate the enterprise, it is not surprising that industry-sponsored trials published in medical journals consistently favor sponsors’ drugs—largely because negative results are not published, positive results are repeatedly published in slightly different forms, and a positive spin is put on even negative results. A review of seventy-four clinical trials of antidepressants, for example, found that thirty-seven of thirty-eight positive studies were published.8 But of the thirty-six negative studies, thirty-three were either not published or published in a form that conveyed a positive outcome. It is not unusual for a published paper to shift the focus from the drug’s intended effect to a secondary effect that seems more favorable.

The suppression of unfavorable research is the subject of Alison Bass’s engrossing book, Side Effects: A Prosecutor, a Whistleblower, and a Bestselling Antidepressant on Trial. This is the story of how the British drug giant GlaxoSmithKline buried evidence that its top-selling antidepressant, Paxil, was ineffective and possibly harmful to children and adolescents. Bass, formerly a reporter for the Boston Globe, describes the involvement of three people—a skeptical academic psychiatrist, a morally outraged assistant administrator in Brown University’s department of psychiatry (whose chairman received in 1998 over $500,000 in consulting fees from drug companies, including GlaxoSmithKline), and an indefatigable New York assistant attorney general. They took on GlaxoSmithKline and part of the psychiatry establishment and eventually prevailed against the odds.

  1. 1

    Gardiner Harris and Benedict Carey, “Researchers Fail to Reveal Full Drug Pay,” The New York Times, June 8, 2008.

  2. 2

    Most of the information in these paragraphs, including Nemeroff’s quote in the summer of 2004, is drawn from a long letter written by Senator Grassley to James W. Wagner, President of Emory University, on October 2, 2008.

  3. 3

    See Gardiner Harris, “Leading Psychiatrist Didn’t Report Drug Makers’ Pay,” The New York Times, October 4, 2008.

  4. 4

    Senator Grassley is current investigating Wyeth for paying a medical writing firm to ghost-write articles favorable to its hormone-replacement drug Prempro.

  5. 5

    Some of this material is drawn from my article “Industry-Sponsored Clinical Research: A Broken System,” TheJournal of the American Medical Association, September 3, 2008.

  6. 6

    Justin E. Bekelman et al., “Scope and Impact of Financial Conflicts of Interest in Biomedical Research: A Systematic Review,” The Journal of the American Medical Association, January 22, 2003.

  7. 7

    Eric G. Campbell et al., “Institutional Academic–Industry Relationships,” The Journal of the American Medical Association, October 17, 2007.

  8. 8

    Erick H. Turner et al., “Selective Publication of Antidepressant Trials and Its Influence on Apparent Efficacy,” The New England Journal of Medicine, January 17, 2008.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print