A story in the Philadelphia Inquirer yesterday about Wyeth and ghostwriting brought to mind my medical school days at Boston University, in a metaphorical and rather negative way, regarding an oddity reflecting today's pharma industry.
In those years I lived next to Boston City Hospital on the top floor of a 29-story high rise at 35 Northampton Street, at that time one of the toughest and highest crime neighborhoods in the region if not the country (I was careful and lucky, and only got mugged at gunpoint once.) I had an excellent bird's-eye view of the urban decay in the area, reflective of ethical decay in the community.
Across the street from the high rise was an oddity - a very large liquor store named Blanchard's. Inside Blanchard's was a very small grocery department of all things. Have a snack with your booze! (I went in only twice; once to see what it was all about, and again during the Blizzard of '78 to get some needed food when all transit in the city was shut down and several feet of snow -- and neighborhood guns -- inhibited foot travel.)
The area has much improved in the past three decades, but according to Google street view the liquor store is still there:
Why does this odd store remind me of Wyeth, and more generally today's pharmaceutical industry?
Because that industry has turned from what used to be a biomedical research & development industry with decent ethics and a small marketing arm, to large marketing industry with poor ethics and a small R&D arm.
(Or, perhaps more accurately, a large marketing industry with poor ethics and a busywork section disguised to look like R&D. As a colleague noted in my post "Pfizer/Wyeth Merger And Sacrificing The Future: Laying Off Scientific Staff All Over The Place" here, a small fraction of prime scientist intellectual horsepower and time is actually spent on true R&D today, the rest wasted on feeding the bureaucratic corpulence that is the modern pharma research lab. He observed that "what we today call pharmaceutical R&D is in reality busywork disguised to look like R&D, in effect a well engineered, well managed, massively expensive failure.")
Here is what led to my "pharmas have become large marketing firms with a small R&D effort" metaphor. It was a story in the local newspaper on ghostwriting.
The glib quotes from Dr. Joseph Camardo, Wyeth's senior vice president of global medical affairs, on the practice of ghostwriting are simply stunning:
Ghosts in the medical machine
Was drug research infected by ghostwriters? With Paxil suit in court, a Chadds Ford firm says it was ethical.
By Miriam Hill
When GlaxoSmithKline P.L.C. marketers looked for doctors to promote the antidepressant Paxil, they called the project CASPPER. The name was more than just an offbeat tribute to the friendly cartoon ghost. It was a wink and a nod to "ghostwriting," a questionable practice in which scientists put their names on research written by someone else, usually a writer paid by a drugmaker.
Ghostwriting critics say it disguises marketing material as scientific research.
Charges of ghostwriting have been lobbed against many companies in recent years, including Glaxo, Wyeth, AstraZeneca P.L.C., and Merck & Co. Inc., often arising in lawsuits from consumers claiming a drug hurt them.
... Documents released in connection with 8,000 lawsuits filed against Wyeth over Premarin and Prempro show that the company, which employs several thousand people in Collegeville, paid a medical-writing firm to produce articles from 1998 to 2005 that allegedly downplayed the risks of hormone treatment and emphasized benefits.
In 2002, researchers stopped a landmark federal study after finding that menopausal women who took certain hormones had an increased risk of breast cancer, heart disease, and stroke.
"Ghostwriting was used to sway physician opinions to favor hormone use as disease prevention long after that was a scientifically defensible position," Fugh-Berman [writer Adriane Fugh-Berman - ed.] said.
Joseph Camardo, Wyeth's senior vice president of global medical affairs, called Fugh-Berman's view "baseless." Medical opinion evolves, he said, and the papers in question reflected scientific understanding then. He also said the authors alone controlled the content and writing of the papers, though some did have outside help paid for by Wyeth.
"It's really being misrepresented as something we wrote and paid for that said what we thought it should say," Camardo said. "But the authors were not paid, and the authors had the final say."
... Studies on ghostwriting have suggested that anywhere from 8 percent to 75 percent of articles in medical journals may involve the practice.
Aside from the point I raised in my post "Has Ghostwriting Infected The Experts With Tainted Knowledge, Creating Vectors for Further Spread and Mutation of the Scientific Knowledge Base?" here regarding possible severe contamination of the literature and therefore of "expert knowledge" as it exists today, Camardo's response raises a cornucopia of questions.
Regarding "Medical opinion evolves, he said, and the papers in question reflected scientific understanding then":
- Whose scientific opinion do they reflect, exactly?
- Does Camardo believe these ghostwritten papers, usually written by party "A" but with authorship claimed by party "B" (usually prominent academic physicians often nurtured by the industry into the role of "key opinion leaders", KOL's) are objective?
- Does Camardo actually believe most of the content comes from party "B" rather than party "A" in these papers?
- Does Camardo understand that paying a MECC (Medical education & communications company) or other firm to write scientific papers puts the author(s) of those papers in a conflict of interest position relative to the paying sponsor, injurious to objectivity?
- Is Camardo that naive to believe a paid writer would "diss" the holder of his or her paycheck?
- Which authors is he referring to?
- The ghostwriters?
- Wyeth scientists?
- Academics claiming authorship?
- Was the "outside help" from Wyeth "authors" to the ghosts, or from the ghosts to Wyeth "authors", or from Wyeth to the academics claiming authorship, or what?
- Can Camardo produce statistics on what % of article content on ghostwritten articles Wyeth sponsored were written by the ghost vs. written by Wyeth scientists and/or the claimed academic author? If not, why not? And if not, why should any intelligent person not assume the papers are, say, 99% the product of the hired guns?
- Again, which author(s) is he referring to?
- In terms of the ghosts, I assume they were not working for the MECC's for free.
- In terms of the academics and KOL's claiming authorship, they (maybe!) were not paid in money, but instead in the valuable academic currency of a publication in a major biomedical journal.
This is marketing, with poor ethics, in the extreme.
Being somewhat familiar with authorship issues as former Director of Published Scientific Information Resources and The Merck Index (of Chemicals, Drugs & Biologicals), 13th ed. at Merck Research Labs, I further pointed out in my post "Wyeth: Ghostwritten Papers Fake, But Accurate" here, that:
... in addition to the violation of accepted practices of authorship, such as specified by NIH and the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, among others, such lucky authors [i.e., those who claim authorship of ghostwritten papers] get to "count" such papers in their academic portfolios, presumably also in violation of their own institutional policies and guidelines for fair attribution and intellectual honesty, e.g., here [Harvard - ed.]
These industry practices and Camardo's position may be based on:
- Ignorance of accepted practices of authorship of the NIH, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, and most academic institutions, or perhaps:
- Cavalier dismissal of these practices for pecuniary reasons.
Is Camardo informed and upfront? Inept? Disingenuous and dishonest? That is up to the reader to decide.
In my aforementioned post "Wyeth: Fake but Accurate" I'd also noted Wyeth attorney Stephen Urbanczyk acknowledging that the ghostwritten articles were part of a marketing effort. But he said that they were also "fair, balanced, and scientific." More spin.
This raises the following observation. It is said that you can judge people by the company they keep. I also believe that:
You can judge companies by the people they keep.
This raises the following very serious questions:
- Is the presence of a senior vice president of global medical affairs and a lawyer with such views on ghostwriting representative of the senior executive leadership's views on dissemination of biomedical scientific information?
- Is their presence reflective of the views of Wyeth's Board of Directors?
If so, then the objectivity of any article about Wyeth drugs is called into question, and physicians and patients should utilize Wyeth drugs (and literature on them) with great caution.
Recently released court documents in a lawsuit against drug giant Wyeth, thanks to a court action by the New York Times and PLoS Medicine, are now searchable at a University of California, San Francisco web site.
... The documents were first made available last month on the PLoS web site, but were not searchable and difficult to sort through. The DIDA site now make it possible to search for documents by name, type or content.