Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Media Reports on How Pharmaceutical Companies May Manipulate Information

Newspapers have become interested, again, in the issue of pharmaceutical companies manipulating information supplied to the public or health care professionals.

USA Today published several stories on the pharmaceutical industry. One was on various tactics the industry may used to mislead the public in television direct to consumer advertising, according to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These included:
  • Overstating the effectiveness of a drug. For example, a Novartis ad included graphics that implied, according to the FDA, Lamisil is completely effective in eradicating nail fungus. The FDA asserted, in contrast, that clinical trials only revealed a 38% cure rate.
  • Advertising a drug for problems other than those for which its use was approved by the FDA. For example, Wyeth advertised Effexor as treatment of mild depressive symptoms, according to the FDA. The drug, however, was only approved by the FDA for major depressive disorder.
  • Unsubstantiated claims. For example, Hoffman-La Roche advertised Xeloda, a cancer chemotherapy agent, using testimonials that the drug didn't make patients "too tired" or "too sick." However, the FDA noted "in stark contrast" the number of reports that Xeloda makes people feel sick and tired.
USA Today also ran a story on how pharmaceutical companies may ghost-write articles, and then try to get academics to pose as first authors. (Our last posting on ghost-writing is here, and a posting about how medical schools are willing to sign contracts with research sponsors that allow the sponsors to write up research results, is here.) It included an estimate by Dr. Martha Gerrity, Co-Editor of the Journal of General Internal Medicine, that two to four of the 70-80 manuscripts the journal receives each month may be ghost-written. Dr. Catherine DeAngelis, the Editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association said that before she became an editor, she got one phone call a month asking her to pose as the author of a ghost-written article. The article provides another bit of evidence that ghost-writing may be far more prevalent than most physicians and researchers realized. Yet, as Dr. DeAngelis said, ghost-writing is "manipulation by for-profits to alter what's in the (medical) literature so that they could sell their products."
Finally, the NY Times ran a story suggesting that pharmaceutical companies seem split about whether to submit information to online registries of controlled trials. These registries had been proposed as a way to prevent the companies from hiding unfavorable results of clinical trials.
Some companies, notably Eli Lilly, have apparently been quick to provide trial information to the registries. Dr. Alan Breier, the company's chief medical officer, said "fundamentally, what we're doing is in the interest of patients, and I think that this is the winning model, for academia, for industry, and the future."
On the other hand, some companies, e.g., Merck, Pfizer, and GlaxoSmithKline, have been stingy in the information they have provided to the NIH clinical trials registry, clinicaltrials.gov. Dr. Deborah Zarin, the director of the site, noted, for example, that Merck only said that one trial was a "one-year stury of an investigational drug in obese patients." Failing to provide crucial details, like the name of the drug, would make it impossible in the future to tell if Merck ever published a report of the trial's results.
The Times reported that "executives and press representatives at the companies said generally that disclosing too much information about early-state trials might reveal business or scientfic secrets." On the other hand, Dr. Breir of Lilly felt that it could supply information to the registry while still protecting its intellectual property.
In summary, physicians' efforts to make decisions for patients based on the best available research data are frustrated when companies hide or manipulate research results which put their products in a bad light. Manipulating or hiding research results betrays those patients who volunteered to participate in clinical trials intending to help advance science and improve patient care. Misleading advertising pushes patients to get treatments that are needlessly expensive, and sometimes needlessly hazardous. Too often, pharmaceutical companies seem to have forgotten their high-minded promises to help patients with better treatments in the pursuit of short-term profits.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This post is a good illustration of the destructive autonomy that exists within the pharma industry due to the intentional inaction of regulators. With DTC ads, they are not submitted to what is called DDMAC for approval before they are aired or published. They are only discontinued when complaints are brought to thier attention. The same goes for information pharma reps have to promote thier products. If the information creates awareness in the FDA, they simply slap the wrist of the pharma company with a warning letter that means nothing as a deterrent.