If you work in the drug industry, and for some reason you feel that your blood pressure isn’t quite high enough today, a look at this debate at the British Medical Journal should fix that up for you. “Should journals stop publishing research funded by the drug industry?” is the title – there, doesn’t that constrict your blood vessels already?
Taking the “Yes, they should” side are Richard Smith (former editor of the journal, now with a British organization called “Patients Know Best“, and Peter C. Gøtzsche of the Nordic Cochrane Center. Here’s their opening statement, and Gøtzsche’s recent opinion piece in the same journal is a good harbinger, as it turns out:
The BMJ and its sibling journals have stopped publishing research funded by the tobacco industry for two main reasons: the research is corrupted and the companies publish their research to advance their commercial aims, oblivious of the harm they do. But these arguments apply even more strongly to research funded by the drug industry, and we suggest there is a better way to communicate the results of trials that would be safer for patients.
Prescribed drugs are the third leading cause of death, partly because of flaws in the evidence published in journals. We have long known that clinical trials funded by the drug industry are much more likely than publicly funded trials to produce results favourable to the company. The reason is obvious. The difference between an honest and a less than honest data analysis can be worth billions of euros, and the fraudulent trials of some cyclo-oxygenase-2 inhibitors for arthritis and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors for depression are good examples
They’re absolutely right about the financial motivations, and a first-rate moral hazard it is, too. But the comparison with the tobacco companies is a real pencil-snapper (as they no doubt intended it to be). They go on about prescription drugs being the “third largest cause of death”, about “drug industry crimes”, and so on. To be fair, and first let me brush these pencil fragments off my desk, the pharmaceutical companies have laid themselves wide open to these sorts of attacks, painting huge fluorescent bulls-eye targets on themselves again and again. But still.
This piece casually mentions that “olanzapine (Zyprexa), has probably caused 200 000 deaths”, footnoting a book by one of the two authors. I seem to have missed that. Many antipsychotic drugs are associated with QT prolongation, which can lead to fatal heart arrythmias, but the worst of them have long been taken out of use. The FDA is investigating two deaths following injection of long-acting olanzapine, not two hundred thousand. Olanzapine has plenty of side effects, though, including weight gain (which can exacerbate Type II diabetes), and it has a warning label in the US about giving it to elderly patients under any conditions. But two hundred thousand deaths? I can’t find any support for any such figure; it appears in Gøtzsche’s book and apparently nowhere else, so citing it in this article as if it were a well-established fact is a nice move.
Taking the “No” side is Trish Groves of the BMJ itself. She rejects the analogy with the tobacco industry – as she should, because it’s offensive and ridiculous. She goes on to detail the problems with industry-reported results and what the journal is doing about them. As opposed to the “Yes” side, it’s a pretty reasonable piece. One of the things she mentions is that investigator-led trials have their own sources of bias. Very few people organizing an effort the size of a useful clinical trial will be disinterested in its results, unfortunately.
How much can we trust the evidence base for drugs in current use? It’s hard to tell, given the woeful legacy of widespread non-registration, non-publication, and selective reporting of clinical trials. Much of this reporting bias also applies to investigator led trials, and the many steps now being taken to mandate prospective trial registration, ensure reporting of all results, and access patient level data on interventions’ benefits and harms, as called for by the AllTrials campaign, must apply to them as much as to industry led trials. Moreover, new rules on transparency need to be applied retrospectively: laudable plans to provide access to data on new drugs aren’t enough.
That’s why the BMJ is keen to publish papers from the RIAT (Restoring Invisible and Abandoned Trials) initiative, through which academics who find previously unreported trials can write them up and publish them if the original investigators decline to do so. We also welcome “negative” trials that find no evidence of benefit, as long as their research questions are important and their methods robust, and we’re particularly interested in publishing trials of comparative effectiveness. Both these types of study can be much more useful to clinical practice than the placebo controlled trials that regulators demand. . .
It should be no great task to guess which side of this debate I favor – after all, I’m one of those evil drug company scientists who mow down the customers by the hundreds of thousands. I do wish that Groves’ response had strayed a bit from the topic at hand and addressed those accusations of mass murder (that’s what they are). I realize that it must be hard to tell a former editor to tone things down and go back for a rewrite. But still.