It will take an extensive review of the case to ultimately suggest we should not at all be relieved. The case raised important concerns about the validity of clinical research, and whether it violates the trust of its patient-subjects. These concerns had not been addressed before the university's most recent review, and thus seem even more pointed after its recent non-investigation.
Background: the Untimely Death of Dan Markingson
In May, 2008, the (Minnesota) Pioneer Press ran a series of articles about the untimely death of Dan Markingson which occurred while he was enrolled in a randomized trial sponsored by AstraZeneca (the CAFE study) at a site at the University of Minnesota. The first article in the series made the following major points:
Mr Markingson had given his consent to be enrolled despite evidence that he was actively psychotic
He started having visions of killing his mother in the storm. Markingson was taken Nov. 12, 2003, to Regions Hospital in St. Paul, but it had no open psychiatric beds. He was then transferred to the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview.
Weiss said discussions about research started right away at the hospital. Markingson was placed in Fairview's Station 12, a new unit at the time created to treat psychotic patients and screen them for research. Olson and Dr. Charles Schulz, head of the U's psychiatry department, helped launch the unit in part to enhance the hospital's startup schizophrenia program and meet the U's mandate to bring in more research dollars.
Olson first recommended on Nov. 14 that a Dakota County District Court commit Markingson to the state treatment center in Anoka because he was not fit to make decisions about his care. He wrote to the court that Markingson was convinced his delusions were real and that he wasn't mentally ill.
The doctor changed his opinion about the commitment in less than a week, telling the court Markingson had started to acknowledge the need for help.
Reversals by patients are common, Olson explained in an interview with the Pioneer Press last month. Schizophrenics often arrive for treatment with delusions and denial but change their outlook while hospitalized.
A judge agreed Nov. 20 with Olson's new recommendation, requiring Markingson to follow the doctor's treatment plan. The next day, Markingson signed a consent form to be part of a national anti-psychotic drug study, Comparison of Atypicals for First Episode, or CAFE.
His mother's multiple complaints that while in the study, Markingson was not getting better and not getting proper treatment were ignored
Weiss' letters to Olson and Schulz, who was a co-investigator in the study, urged them to consider different treatment options for her son, which would have disqualified him from the study. But the doctors were unconvinced by her pleas.
In particular, she wrote with strange prescience,
'Do we have to wait until he kills himself or someone else,' she asked three weeks before his suicide, 'before anyone does anything.'There was evidence that Markingson was not getting optimal treatment
In retrospect, it was not even clear that Markingson was taking his study medications prior to his suicide:
An autopsy showed no medication in Markingson's bloodstream, and a coroner's photo showed a sealed bottle of his medication. Had he been taking his drugs?Suggestions that financial conflicts of interest influenced trial investigators' actions
Study officials could have been fooled. They only counted drugs left in pill bottles instead of testing blood levels in patients.
The initial news article raised questions whether the study investigator had been unduly influenced to keep Markingson in the study by financial concerns:
CAFE was an early opportunity at the U for Olson to add research experience to his academic credentials. The U had recruited him in 2001 for his expertise in schizophrenia.
It was a slow start. Olson recruited one patient in 2002, and CAFE study leaders considered dropping him altogether, according to monthly recruiting summaries. Olson and the university had been dropped from a previous study because of low recruiting numbers, the doctor later said in his court deposition.
Exchanges between local and national study officials made it clear that there was pressure for results and a 'risk' that the study would be shut down if it didn't recruit enough patients.
As Subject 13, Markingson was worth $15,000 to the U, with some of that going to Olson's salary and the psychiatry department. Switching or adding medications could have disqualified Markingson and halted payments to Olson and the department from AstraZeneca.
Overall, the study offered $327,000 to the U and an opportunity to raise the profile of its schizophrenia program.
An accompanying Pioneer Press article indicated that both Dr Olson, and the Chair of Psychiatry, Dr S Charles Schulz, were receiving considerable financial support from AstraZeneca and other pharmaceutical companies at the time of the study.
Olson received $220,000 from six companies since 2002, including $149,000 from AstraZeneca, according to the state records. Schulz received $562,000, including $112,000 as a researcher and consultant to AstraZeneca.Did the lawsuit's results indicate nothing was wrong?
Olson said his AstraZeneca money went straight to the U but did support his salary. Markingson's full participation in the yearlong study meant up to $15,000 for the university.
Mr Markingson's mother sued the University of Minnesota and AstraZeneca, but (per the first Pioneer Press article),
The lawsuit ended this year after a judge ruled that the university had statutory immunity from such lawsuits and that AstraZeneca shouldn't stand trial because there was no convincing proof that its drug caused Markingson's death. Weiss settled with Olson, the only defendant left. She said she was granted $75,000, which went entirely toward legal bills.Note that the results did not address the university's or its administration's role.
Dr Carl Elliott Takes Another Look
Thus the case appeared to end, with no real reconsideration of how medical schools' dependence on commercial funding of clinical studies, and how individual faculty members' financial relationships with drug, device, and biotechnology firms may affect research done on human beings.
However, in September, 2010, Mother Jones published an article by Dr Carl Elliott, a University of Minnesota bioethicist, which raised further questions about the case.
I talked to several university colleagues and administrators, trying to learn what had happened. Many of them dismissed the story as slanted and incomplete. Yet the more I examined the medical and court records, the more I became convinced that the problem was worse than the Pioneer Press had reported. The danger lies not just in the particular circumstances that led to Dan's death, but in a system of clinical research that has been thoroughly co-opted by market forces, so that many studies have become little more than covert instruments for promoting drugs
Major design defects of the CAFE study:
It barred subjects from being taken off their assigned drug; it didn't allow them to be switched to another drug if their assigned drug was not working; and it restricted the number of additional drugs subjects could be given to manage side effects and symptoms such as depression, anxiety, or agitation. Like many clinical trials, the study was also randomized and double-blinded: Subjects were assigned a drug randomly by a computer, and neither the subjects nor the researchers knew which drug it was. These restrictions meant that subjects in the CAFE study had fewer therapeutic options than they would have had outside the study.
In fact, the CAFE study also contained a serious oversight that, if corrected, would have prevented patients like Dan from being enrolled. Like other patients with schizophrenia, patients experiencing their first psychotic episode are at higher risk of killing themselves or other people. For this reason, most studies of antipsychotic drugs specifically bar researchers from recruiting patients at risk of violence or suicide, for fear that they might kill themselves or someone else during the study. Conveniently, however, the CAFE study only prohibited patients at risk of suicide, not homicide. This meant that Dan—who had threatened to slit his mother's throat, but had not threatened to harm himself—was a legitimate target for recruitment.
As Dr Elliott noted, this appeared to be yet another example of manipulation of clinical research designed to make the sponsors' products look better, a topic we have frequently discussed on Health Care Renewal:
A 2006 study in The American Journal of Psychiatry, which looked at 32 head-to-head trials of atypicals, found that 90 percent of them came out positively for whichever company had designed and financed the trial. This startling result was not a matter of selective publication. The companies had simply designed the studies in a way that virtually ensured their own drugs would come out ahead—for instance, by dosing the competing drugs too low to be effective, or so high that they would produce damaging side effects. Much of this manipulation came from biased statistical analyses and rigged trial designs of such complexity that outside reviewers were unable to spot them. As Dr. Richard Smith, the former editor of the British Medical Journal, has pointed out, 'The companies seem to get the results they want not by fiddling the results, which would be far too crude and possibly detectable by peer review, but rather by asking the 'right' questions.'
This was likely what was going on with the CAFE study:
Although the documents unsealed in the Seroquel litigation do not specifically mention the CAFE study in which Dan was enrolled, they do suggest that AstraZeneca planned to establish Seroquel as the "atypical of choice in first-episode schizophrenia,' according to a 2000 'Seroquel Strate'y Summary.' A later document titled 'Seroquel PR Plan 2001' discusses the agenda for an advisory panel meeting in Hawaii. Among the potential topics were the marketing of Seroquel to first-episode patients, adolescents, and the elderly. The document refers to these populations as "vulnerable patient groups."Were study subjects protected?
Even more alarming are internal documents suggesting that AstraZeneca was designing clinical trials as a covert method of marketing Seroquel. In 1997, when Dr. Andrew Goudie, a psychopharmacologist at the University of Liverpool, asked AstraZeneca to fund a research study he was planning, a company official replied that 'R&D is no longer responsible for Seroquel research—it is now the responsibility of Sales and Marketing.' The official also noted that funding decisions would depend on whether the study was likely to show a 'competitive advantage for Seroquel.'
So, as Dr Elliott wrote,
Many clinical studies place human subjects at risk—at a minimum, the risk of mild discomfort, and at worst, the risk of serious pain and death. Bioethicists and regulators spend a lot of time and energy debating the degree of risk that ought to be permitted in a study, how those risks should be presented to subjects, and the way those risks should be balanced against the potential benefits a subject might receive. What is simply assumed, without much consideration at all, is that the research is being conducted to produce scientific knowledge. This assumption is codified in a number of foundational ethics documents, such as the Nuremberg Code, which was instituted following Nazi experiments on concentration camp victims. The Nuremberg Code stipulates that an 'experiment should be such as to yield fruitful results for the good of society,' and 'the degree of risk to be taken should never exceed that determined by the humanitarian importance of the problem to be solved by the experiment.'
But what if a research study is not really aimed at producing genuine scientific knowledge at all? The documents emerging in litigation suggest that pharmaceutical companies are designing, analyzing, and publishing trials primarily as a way of positioning their drugs in the marketplace. This raises a question unconsidered in any current code of research ethics. How much risk to human subjects is justified in a study whose principal aim is to 'generate commercially attractive messages'?
Conflicts of interest
Of course, university faculty pushed to bring in more external funds to support their careers (see this post) by university leaders with their eyes on the bottom line may not be too critical of the intricate designs of the studies they need to do to continue their academic careers, and whether such studies are really meant to promote science and improve patient care, or position products in the marketplace, especially when the same companies are paying them as consultants, speakers, etc.
In fact, Dr Elliott found reasons to make such concerns specific to the case of Mr Markingson's untimely death:
Olson had another financial reason to maintain good relations with AstraZeneca. According to a disclosure statement for a 2006 conference, he was a member of the AstraZeneca 'speaker's bureau,' giving paid talks for the company. He had similar arrangements with Eli Lilly and Janssen, the makers of the other atypicals being tested in the CAFE study, as well as Bristol-Myers Squibb and Pfizer. In addition, Olson was working as a paid consultant for Lilly, Janssen, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Pfizer.
Bioethicists Demand an Investigation
So eight University of Minnesota bioethicists, including Dr Elliott, wrote a letter to the University administration demanding an investigation, as reported in December, 2010, by the Minneapolis- St Paul Star-Tribune,
In a letter to the board Monday, the professors questioned whether U psychiatrists lacked ethical judgment in enrolling the victim, Dan Markingson, a schizophrenic who may have lacked the wherewithal to consent to research. They also questioned whether financial incentives from AstraZeneca, the drugmaker funding the study, presented conflicts for the researchers, Dr. Stephen Olson and Dr. S. Charles Schulz.
At the time, the administration promised a serious response:
U leaders will take the letter seriously and take the protection of human research subjects seriously, said the U's general counsel, Mark Rotenberg.
But then almost immediately indicated its bias:
'The fact that this is tragic doesn't mean the treating physicians did anything wrong,' he said.
What, Us Worry?
It did not take long for Mark Rotenberg to decide that there was nothing more to worry about. As reported in February, 2011, by the Pioneer Press:
in a Monday letter to Elliott and colleagues, the chairman of the U's board of regents wrote 'we do not believe further university resources should be expended re-reviewing a matter such as this, which has already received such exhaustive analysis by independent authoritative bodies.'
'Our general counsel has provided us with the extensive reviews of this case that were performed over the years by a number of independent experts and governmental units,' chairman Clyde Allen Jr. said in the letter. 'Each and every one of these reviews resulted in the same conclusion: there was no improper or inappropriate care provided to Mr. Markingson, nor is there evidence of misconduct or violation of applicable laws or regulations.'
Of course, since Mr Rotenberg is responsible for, among other things, reducing the university's legal liability, one could see how he might not want to delve further into this case. As we noted earlier, it is not clear that previous "exhaustive" investigations asked the questions that needed to be asked, or had access to all the relevant data. The issues are not whether their was criminal conduct, or even civil liability, but whether the university is presiding over good science and protection of research subjects?
So we should be worried, of course, that commercial firms sponsor research on human beings mainly to serve marketing objectives, and that university faculty and administrators go along, allowing their formerly prestigious universities' names to be added to the research in exchange for the money they so much want to keep themselves living in the style to which they are accustomed. We ought to be particularly worried when these universities seem to forget about their mission to find and disseminate new knowledge in favor of defending the work that continues to bring in the money.
Thus, physicians, researchers, patients, and the public ought to be very skeptical about clinical research sponsored by commercial firms with vested interests in the research turning out a particular way, and even about research not sponsored by such firms, but done by researchers who have personal financial ties to such firms. Worse, patients ought to be extremely skeptical about the motives of researchers who want to enroll them in trials when the researchers have financial ties to commercial firms whose products could be promoted through such trials, and especially when such firms are sponsoring the trials.
As a long-time advocate for evidence-based medicine, whose advancement depends on the continuing creation of valid research evidence from clinical research, it is heart-breaking to have to make these recommendations, but they will be necessary until there is better assurance that clinical research is being done to advance science and patient care, not the commercial interests of the sponsors and the researchers.
Until academic medicine becomes more open about how and why it is doing clinical research, such skepticism is warranted.
However, I will end with a ray of hope. If the administrators and faculty do not get it, the student journalists do. Read these words in an editorial in the Minnesota Daily:
Of course, the University has maintained neither it nor anyone involved in the case did anything wrong, an odd claim to make after the Minnesota Legislature unanimously passed a law that prohibits exactly what happened and named the law after Markingson.
The University seems to think that because it was not held liable in court for Markingson’s death, it did nothing wrong. This is false; it is a cynical excuse to keep corporate drug money flowing into the University.
The regents’ decision fundamentally undermines our mission: Supposedly, the University is 'dedicated to … the search for truth.' But the letter makes it clear that corporate research cash is more important to the University than patient safety and transparency.
Refusing to set up an independent investigation is a willfully ignorant attempt to sweep the Markingson case under the rug and damages the integrity of the entire University.
Perhaps it is time for the state legislature to take another look at this issue.
True health care reform would separate clinical research, that is, research done on human beings, from the commercial interests of health care corporations and the people who work for them.
ADDENDUM (18 March, 2011) - See this post by Naomi Freundlich on the Health Beat blog.