A philosopher’s take on Big Pharma marketing

You may not expect to find an ivory tower academic whose erudite specialty is philosophy hanging out at drug marketing conferences, but that’s where you would have found Dr. Sergio Sismondo a few years ago. The professor of philosophy at my old stomping ground, Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, turned up at the annual meeting of the International Society of Medical Planning Professionals, one of two large organizations representing medical communications firms.

A medical communications firm is a business that sells services to pharmaceutical and other companies for “managing” the publication and placement of scientific research papers for maximal marketing impact, often  running a full publicity campaign to help sell the drug being “studied”. This is an alarmingly widespread practice in which drug companies essentially decide what your physician will end up reading in medical journals.  Continue reading

When medical research is funded to favour the drug, not the facts

Here’s a cardiac research story so confusing that the average dull-witted heart attack survivor like me can barely keep up with the plot. So let’s try telling the tale in pared-down plain English to see if we can figure out how two well-respected “experts” can have such viciously opposing interpretations of the same research, and what factors might just be at work to influence those opinions – financial and otherwise.

But before even looking at the story’s details,  let’s do what everybody should do before evaluating any study results: fast-forward to the end of the research report until you find the teeny tiny fine print revealing researchers’ conflict of interest disclosures. And it turns out that each of the opposing researchers in this story has plenty of reason to trash the other’s interpretation.  Continue reading

Warning: clinical trials funded by drug companies may appear more truthful than they actually are

gabapentinWell, here’s a shocker: apparently, there appears to be a difference between internal drug company documents about the research trials that they fund, and the articles reporting that research that end up in medical journals. The New England Journal of Medicine calls this ‘selective outcome reporting’, but for the sake of clarity, let’s just call it ‘lying’.

At first blush, the process of getting drug research results published seems straightforward enough. Since 2005, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors has even required all research investigators to register their clinical trials prior to participant enrollment as a pre-condition for publishing the trial’s findings in member journals.

So in a nutshell, researchers set out to run clinical trials, as they are legally required to do, on a particular drug. They have some specific purpose in mind before undertaking this research.  Will this drug ease pain? Reduce inflammation? Lower blood pressure? Treat cancer? That’s the primary outcome of the clinical trial they have in mind, which must be registered before they even begin recruiting people to participate in this study if they want to later submit their findings to a medical journal. Which of course they do.

In a study published today in the NEJM, researchers examined practices for clinical trials of a drug called gabapentin, better known by its brand name Neurontin, an epilepsy drug which was approved in late 1993 for use as an adjunctive medication to control partial seizures (meaning that it’s considered effective when added to other anti-seizure drugs). The research trials for this drug were all funded by Pfizer and Warner-Lambert’s sudsidiary drug company, Parke-Davis.

Researchers looked at 20 clinical trials of gabapentin for which there were internal Pfizer or Parke-Davis documents, 12 of which were ultimately published in medical journals. For eight of these 12 reported trials, the primary outcome defined in the ultimately published journal article differed from that described in the internal documentation protocol. Quelle surprise…  Continue reading