“Integrity in Science” – who’s paying the piper?

Looking for a luscious way to noodle away an hour this weekend? Check out the Center for Science in the Public Interest and their Integrity In Science conflict-of-interest project. But before you back away slowly for something more exciting like organizing the sock drawer, consider this: there is strong evidence that researchers’ financial ties to chemical, pharmaceutical, or tobacco manufacturers directly influence their published positions in supporting the benefit or downplaying the harm of the manufacturers’ product.

In other words, as a heart attack survivor whose doctor has prescribed a fistful of meds, I have no clue which of those drugs has been recommended based on flawed research or tainted journal papers that have essentially been bought and paid for by the drug company who made them. And, worse,  neither do my doctors.

So to check who’s taking money from whom, you can now visit the Integrity in Science database and find out for yourself.  

For example, just for fun, I decided to search all Harvard University faculty on this database. Here is a very small sampling of what I found out with just one click:

♦   Dr. J. Michael Gaziano, M.D., M.P.H. is an Associate Professor at Harvard who in 2005 received between $75,000 and $100,000 as an expert witness for drug giant Merck & Co. for whom he testified that their now-discredited and deadly painkiller Vioxx does not cause heart attacks. He also co-authored “Dietary lycopene, tomato-based food products and cardiovascular disease in women,” sponsored by Roche Vitamins – yes, makers of Roche lycopene.

 Dr. Ronald Kleinman is Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School who has received money from industry sources (like artificial infant formula manufacturers Mead Johnson and Nestle Ltd).  His study on optimal duration of breastfeeding was funded by Gerber Products. He also served as a paid expert witness for Gerber when they were sued for deceptive advertising. And he contributed to a brochure intended for children entitled “Variety’s Mountain” produced by the Sugar Association.

♦  Dr. Sallie Baliunas, Ph.D. is an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, who has received over $630,000 from Exxon Mobil since 1998, and co-authored “Reconstructing climatic and environmental changes of the past 1000 years: a reappraisal” in the journal Energy and Environment – a project supported by the American Petroleum Institute.

♦  Dr. Joseph Biederman, M.D. is a professor in Harvard Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry and Chief of the Program in Pediatric Psychopharmacology, Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and arguably the poster boy for Big Pharma conflicts of interest.

He is, according to the New York Times, also the world’s most prominent advocate of diagnosing bipolar disorder in even the tiniest children and of using anti-psychotic medicines to treat the disease, even though much of his work has been underwritten by drug makers for whom he privately consults. His work personally helped to fuel a controversial 40-fold increase from 1994 to 2003 in the diagnosis of pediatric bipolar disorder. Two of his most recent controversies: the use of anti-psychotic drugs in small children, and conflicts of interest in medicine.  See also: How the “Shrink’s Bible” Can Make You Sick

In fact, an inquiry by Iowa Senator Charles E. Grassley revealed last year that Biederman earned at least $1.6 million in consulting fees from drug makers from 2000 to 2007 – but failed to report all but about $200,000 of this income to university officials (as he had been required to do by his employer), according to information given Congressional investigators.  (Biederman’s failure to disclose his drug company paycheques has been under investigation* for the past two years by Harvard Medical School, in what investigative journalist Alison Bass describes as “what must be the longest investigation in that school’s history”).  In addition:

  • Biederman has received research support from the following sources: Abbott Laboratories, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Cephalon, Eli Lilly, Janssen, McNeil-PPC Inc., Neurosearch, New River Pharmaceuticals, Novartis, Pfizer, and Shire Pharmaceuticals
  • He’s also a paid speaker for Cephalon, Eli Lilly, McNeil-PPC Inc., Shire Pharmaceuticals, UCB Pharma, Novartis
  • He’s paid to sit on advisory boards of Cephalon, Eli Lilly, Janssen, McNeil-PPC Inc., Novartis, and Shire Pharmaceuticals.
  • His research on the effect of long-release Adderall on children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder was funded by Shire Pharmaceuticals, the makers of Adderall. (Pediatrics 2002;110:258-66)

♦  Chester W. Douglass, D.M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H. is a professor in the Department of Epidemiology, Harvard School of Public Health, and Editor-in-Chief for The Colgate Oral Health Report, funded by the fluoride toothpaste maker Colgate-Palmolive Company. When he was publicly accused of downplaying research showing an increased risk of bone cancer linked with fluoride and young boys, Harvard investigated their employee but then cleared him of allegations of wrongdoing. He was coincidentally later revealed by The Crimson to be one of Harvard’s $1 million donors.

♦  Dr. Graham A. Colditz, of the Harvard Medical School admitted that his research on a prospective study of fruit and vegetable consumption and its impact on one’s risk of lung cancer was supported by the Florida Citrus Growers.

The interesting common denominator behind all of these conflicts of interest is the virtually universal insistence on the part of the payees that they see absolutely nothing wrong with being on the take from industry. Dr. Biederman himself had the gall to insist this, even as he failed to report $1.4 million worth of his industry paycheques to his Harvard employers as he was required to have done. If he truly believed there was nothing wrong with taking all that money from Big Pharma, then why hide it?

Check this the Center For Science In The Public Interest database for more behind-the-scenes conflict-of-interest reports about a doctor or academic near you.

* NEWS UPDATE:  “Massachusetts General Hospital Discloses Sanctions against Three Psychiatrists for Violating Ethics Guidelines”, July 1, 2011:   The Boston Business Journal said today that three psychiatrists have been sanctioned for failing to adequately report seven-figure payments they received from drug companies.

Drs. Joseph Biederman, Thomas Spencer and Timothy Wilens disclosed the disciplinary actions against them in a note to colleagues. According to a copy of the note made public upon request by the hospital, the three doctors:

• must refrain from “all industry-sponsored outside activities” for one year

• for two years after the ban ends, must obtain permission from Mass. General and Harvard Medical School before engaging in any industry-sponsored, paid outside activities and then must report back afterward

• must undergo certain training

• face delays before being considered for “promotion or advancement.”

The three doctors have been under the political microscope since June 2008 when Senator Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, began investigating conflicts of interest involving clinicians. Biederman and Wilens have each since admitted to accepting $1.6 million from drug companies whose drugs they were promoting; Spencer took $1 million.

Senator Grassley said, according to an online version of the Congressional record:

“These three Harvard doctors are some of the top psychiatrists in the country, and their research is some of the most important in the field. They have also taken millions of dollars from the drug companies.”

See also:

24 thoughts on ““Integrity in Science” – who’s paying the piper?

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  4. This article ought to be required reading by every U.S. citizen. Big Pharma, FDA and AMA have been in bed together for decades. It is the most disgusting orgy in American history.

    The gullible masses think of doctors as gods, and obey “doctor’s orders” like slaves groveling at their master’s feet. Our touted health-care system with its “modern medical miracles” is the biggest racket ever perpetrated upon humanity. It has little to do with patients’ health, and everything to do with providers’ wealth.

    Memorize this riddle … Question: What is the difference between God and a doctor? Answer: God doesn’t think He is a doctor.

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