Drug Companies & Doctors: A Story of Corruption

A Note to Readers
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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,…


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