Ben Goldacre has a new book coming out, Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients, which will be available this week in the UK and January in the US. From this excerpt in the Guardian, it’s going to be phenomenal…and phenomenally depressing. Once again, money poisons good science — the pharmaceutical industry is so awash in profits and greedy for more that they skew the results of clinical trials to get favorable statistics.
In any sensible world, when researchers are conducting trials on a new tablet for a drug company, for example, we’d expect universal contracts, making it clear that all researchers are obliged to publish their results, and that industry sponsors – which have a huge interest in positive results – must have no control over the data. But, despite everything we know about industry-funded research being systematically biased, this does not happen. In fact, the opposite is true: it is entirely normal for researchers and academics conducting industry-funded trials to sign contracts subjecting them to gagging clauses that forbid them to publish, discuss or analyse data from their trials without the permission of the funder.
This is such a secretive and shameful situation that even trying to document it in public can be a fraught business. In 2006, a paper was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Jama), one of the biggest medical journals in the world, describing how common it was for researchers doing industry-funded trials to have these kinds of constraints placed on their right to publish the results. The study was conducted by the Nordic Cochrane Centre and it looked at all the trials given approval to go ahead in Copenhagen and Frederiksberg. (If you’re wondering why these two cities were chosen, it was simply a matter of practicality: the researchers applied elsewhere without success, and were specifically refused access to data in the UK.) These trials were overwhelmingly sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry (98%) and the rules governing the management of the results tell a story that walks the now familiar line between frightening and absurd.
Drugs that don’t work, dangerous side-effects concealed by legalistic loopholes, blatant biases in drug testing…and the data are hidden away from the conscientious doctors who try to give informed recommendations. It’s all scary stuff.