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Big Pharma Stands Strong, Funds "Research" Prizes

Carl Elliott is the author of White Coat, Black Hat: Adventures on the Dark Side of Medicine. Elliott is a professor at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, the Believer, Slate, the London Review of Books, and the American Prospect. His six previous books include Better Than Well, Prozac As a Way of Life, Rules of Insanity, and A Philosophical Disease.

This post originally appeared at the Chronicle of Higher Education's Brainstorm blog

WhitecoatblackhatThe pharmaceutical industry gets a bad rap. To listen to the critics you’d think pharmaceutical companies are in the same sleazy category as oil, finance and tobacco companies. But pharmaceutical companies invent life-saving medications, not to mention countless other psychoactive products that many of us enjoy on a recreational basis.  Pharmaceutical companies get blamed for fraud, kickbacks, and research deaths, but they never get the credit for oxycontin.

That is why I was thrilled to see that GlaxoSmithKline is sponsoring the prize for the British Medical Journal's annual Research Paper of the Year. Sure, the pharma-bashers will whine like infants at the BMJ’s decision to brand a medical research prize with the name of multinational drug company, just as they’re whining about an American editor’s decision to re-locate a leading bioethics journal to the Texas headquarters of a stem cell tourism clinic. These people just don’t get it.  This is not about propaganda or corruption.  It is about developing innovative medications for diseases that we didn’t even know existed.

In that spirit, my nomination for the GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) Research Paper of the Year goes to a ground-breaking article about GSK’s very own antidepressant, Paxil, which was published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.  The title of the article is “Efficacy of Paroxetine in the Treatment of Adolescent Major Depression,” but seasoned pharma-watchers know it better as Study 329. The data behind Study 329 showed that Paxil didn’t actually work in adolescents – that, in fact, it was no better than a sugar pill. However, as any marketer understands, bad data cannot be allowed to interfere with a good paper.  By the time Study 329 appeared in print, GSK had used the magic of biostatistics to transform the raw data into a gleaming advertisement for Paxil.  As a result, when FDA eventually decided that Paxil had a few minor side-effects, such as suicide, Study 329 had already done its work: getting a GSK product into the hands of troubled teenagers.  And wait, here’s the beauty part: although the published version of Study 329 was “authored” by leading academic psychiatrists, it was actually written by a GSK ghostwriter.

Of course, the pharma-bashers have been complaining about Study 329 for years.  Some of them even want the journal to retract it.  The lead “author” who signed the paper, Martin Keller of Brown University, has been beaten up by the Senate Finance Committeeharassed by the New York attorney general, and vilified in the press, all because he put his name on a ghosted article and forgot to report half a million dollars in pharmaceutical income.  To which I say: stand strong, GSK.  Ignore the naysayers and the nitpickers.  It’s about time you gave these good people some public recognition.  Yes, it’s true that Study 329 is eleven years old, but you’re paying the BMJ over $47,000 tosponsor this prize. Surely they can bend the rules, just this once.