Mary K. Pendergast, a former FDA deputy commissioner, said identifying a dangerous product is difficult enough. It's considerably trickier to find fraudulent clinical trial data, which could lead to the approval of dangerous drugs years later.
'It's much more time-consuming and extraordinarily tedious,' said Pendergast, who plowed through such data when she was prosecuting doctors doing drug studies in the United States. 'It's especially hard if the trial is taking place in a different country.'
Particularly when that country has a reputation for cutting corners.
The article quoted a number of people familiar with the clinical trials scene in India who suggested that corners indeed were being cut.
In the burgeoning clinical trial business, says Amar Jesani, a doctor and medical ethicist in Mumbai, every layer of oversight is compromised by cash, and independent monitoring is nonexistent. He has resigned from supposedly independent ethics committees that rubber-stamp drug companies' proposals and overrule any objections.
Dr Arun Bhatt:
Dr. Arun Bhatt is president of Clininvent, a contract research organization in Mumbai that is running 11 trials involving 1,000 patients. He worries that Indian doctors ignore patients' reactions to experimental medicines, missing critical clues about a drug's safety.
'Most sites are not used to recognizing serious adverse events, so they are underreported,' he said with an attitude of resignation. 'Either they don't recognize, don't realize or are afraid to report this information.'
Dr Nandini Kuman:
Dr. Nandini Kumar retired in June as deputy director general of the Indian Council of Medical Research, the equivalent of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. She now works as a consultant for the agency in New Delhi, teaching doctors how to run ethical trials. Kumar is stunned by their ignorance of internationally recognized standards for conducting drug studies.
Asked what aspect of good clinical practice most surprised her students, the gray-haired, sari-clad Kumar snapped, 'Everything.'
'There are efforts to put rules in place, but at the same time there are people who just want to get the extra dollars or perks like trips abroad from doing drug trials....'
Dr S P Kalantri:
Dr. S.P. Kalantri has conducted trials for global pharma at the government hospital in Sevagram, a small town in central India. But he said he has pulled back from doing the studies.
'It's difficult to explain the complexities of trials to study participants,' Kalantri said of the hospital's mostly poor, illiterate patients. 'I think many investigators tend to take their patients for a ride. And there's an abysmal lack of know-how about clinical research among investigators.'
Dr C M Gulhati:
Dr. C.M. Gulhati, editor of an Indian medical journal, Monthly Index of Medical Specialties, said authorities cannot cope with the tsunami of trials.
'India's drugs controller general's office is both understaffed and incompetent,' he said, citing a case where the agency claimed it reviewed an 800-page trial protocol in just five days. 'How is that even possible?'
Gulhati, who fights unbridled drug testing from a dim and cluttered office above a busy Delhi shopping plaza, reeled off a litany of troubled trials:
In 2003 in Hyderabad, an unregistered study of a heart attack drug that resulted in six deaths.
In 2004 in Delhi, a first-in-human trial of a new suturing device on 13 patients without regulators' approval.
Last year, India's decision to become the only nation to allow domestic drug maker Sun Pharmaceutical Industries to market the anticancer drug Letrozole for infertility in women despite the drug's originator, Novartis, warning that it may cause fetal harm and should be used only in postmenopausal women.
And in October in Bangalore, the death of a baby during the testing of a new Wyeth vaccine.
But doing trials in India, and other less-developed countries is far cheaper and faster than doing them in developed countries. Contract research organizations (CROs) have figured this out.
Contract research organizations keep tabs on trials with regular audits. Site management organizations put an extra set of eyes in the doctor's office. Both entities dangle promises of FDA-ready studies in half the time, at 30 to 60 percent the cost in the United States. The secret? Cheap help and fast patient recruiting.
Quintiles, the world's largest contract research organization, boasts of enrolling 50 patients with diabetes in one month in India and 204 infants for a vaccine study in three days, far faster than possible in the States. In a brochure, Quintiles sums up India's allure: 'It's practically a paradise for conducting clinical trials.'
In fact, on Quintiles current web-site is an offer related to Phase II and III trials for
Accelerated Start-up and Recruitment worldwide, through a global network of investigators that includes many in nontraditional regions with large clusters of patients and few competing trials.
We have noted before that the limited oversight of CROs, which are responsible for an increasing proportion of industry-funded trials of drugs and devices, makes possible poor quality work, hence unreliable data (see most recent post here and links backward). The threat to data integrity from too hasty, too profit driven clinical research done by CROs is the third of the three major threats to the integrity of the clinical research data base. The other two, which are discussed frequently on Health Care Renewal, are suppression of clinical research, and manipulation of research design, implementation, and analysis and dissemination.
In combination, they threaten the well-intentioned and idealistic goals of evidence-based medicine, to improve clinical care by basing decisions not only on knowledge of biology and the values of patients, but on critical review of the best available clinical evidence. But given that we have become increasingly skeptical, if not outright distrustful of the integrity of the evidence, the alternative ways of making clinical decisions, basing them on theoretical (but possibly incorrect) knowledge of biology, on authority, or on tradition to me are much worse.
Doctors and patients should be vehement about the need for carefully performed clinical trials free of manipulation meant to benefit vested interests, reported honestly even if their results offend vested interests.