Exposed: Bitter pill of bad pharma

If you are shocked by accounts of politicians fiddling their expenses, try this one: in the United States, doctor and popular media personality Drew Pinsky goes on air to praise the antidepressant Wellbutrin. What is so great about it? Whereas other antidepressants lower libido, this drug "may enhance" sexual arousal. What his loyal listeners do not know is that Pinsky has been paid $275 000 by GlaxoSmithKline "for services to Wellbutrin".

They might never have found out if the US justice department had not taken GlaxoSmithKline to court for illegal marketing and failing to report drug safety data. The nine-year investigation led to a $3-billion fine. (Other pharmaceutical companies have also been fined for similar misdemeanours.) This example does not make it into Ben Goldacre's book Bad Pharma, his calmly outraged account of how the $600-billion drug industry, doctors, academics, regulators and medical journals have let patients down. But it is by no means extraordinary.

Goldacre's previous book, Bad Science, is an easier read, since exposing charlatans can, at times, be played for laughs. Bad Pharma is altogether more sombre and grim – a thorough piece of investigative medical journalism. What keeps you turning its pages is the accessibility of Goldacre's writing, his genuine, indignant passion, his careful gathering of evidence and his use of stories, some of them personal, which bring the book to life.

His tales of drug companies buying the opinion of doctors is not the most alarming of his revelations. Goldacre sets out clearly what is wrong with the way drugs get on to the market. New drugs are tested by the companies that make them, often in trials designed to make the drug look good, which are then written up and published in medical journals. Unless, that is, the company does not like the result of the trial (maybe it shows the drug not working or having severe side effects), in which case this result might be hidden. Regulators should have all the data on a drug's effects, but they often do not share it – so researchers cannot study the data.

The book gives examples of regulatory bodies handing over page after page containing blacked-out results to academics trying to collect data from unpublished trials, the excuse for non-disclosure being commercial sensitivity. Companies pay doctors to extol the virtues of their drugs on the conference circuit, spelling out the sources of information they want doctors to use, and fund patient groups to lobby regulators to approve new drugs.

Glossy versions
Academic journals (I work for the British Medical Journal) are sent research papers and comment pieces that may not always be written by the academics listed as the authors. If a journal does decide to publish a paper showing the benefits of a drug, it may be rewarded by the company that made it, which might buy up hundreds of thousands worth of reprints (glossy versions of the published paper) to distribute to doctors to encourage them to prescribe the drug.

Doctors generally want to do the best for their patients, but they cannot know what that is if half of the data on clinical drug trials is missing and some of the rest is distorted. The editors of medical journals want to publish good research but, as Goldacre says, they know that when companies test their shiny new drug against other treatments they do not always play fair. The vital comparison may be made against a placebo (Goldacre gives a harrowing account of how such a trial led to children in India dying when there was a perfectly good drug to treat them) or against unusually low or abnormally high doses of the drug – to ensure suitable conclusions in terms of efficacy and the severity of side effects. It is no surprise that most published trials funded by drug companies show positive results.

Poor trials you can at least analyse. Missing data, Goldacre says, poisons the knowledge well for everyone.

Consider rosiglitazone, a new type of diabetes drug that was greeted with enthusiasm in about 2005. Rosiglitazone was lauded for reducing blood sugar levels in people with diabetes and therefore for reducing heart attacks.

Before long, however, John Buse, a doctor from the University of North Carolina, became concerned that instead of reducing heart problems, the drug was actually increasing them. His head of department was rung by GlaxoSmithKline, the company that made the drug; a US Senate committee later released a report saying that Buse had been subject to intimidation. Later, GlaxoSmithKline added up results from many trials and found Buse was right. It released the results, but only after two years. Independently, cardiologist Steve Nissen did his own analysis and found a 43% increase in the risk of heart problems with rosiglitazone. The drug was taken off the market in 2010.

What will be the response to Goldacre's book? Drug companies may say that the problems he identifies have now disappeared. New rules insist that they register the details of trials and publish the results whether negative or positive. But as Goldacre points out, little has really changed because no one checks up.

Publicly funded research
Poor research and bias cannot be placed simply at the door of drug companies. The British Medical Journal revealed earlier this year that half of publicly funded research in the US is not published within the required time period. Doctors are often resistant to the notion that they could ever be influenced by adverts and sponsorship, even though the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming. They also rely on education paid for by drug companies because – unusually among professionals – they are loath to pay for it themselves.

At the British Medical Journal we are revising our declaration of interest form to say we will seek to work with doctors who have not received financial handouts from drug companies (funding for research is a different matter).

But pharmaceutical companies are, after all, not charities. They exist to make and sell drugs, some of which work well, and to make a profit for their shareholders. They may talk as if they want to improve healthcare, and sometimes they mean it, but only proper regulation from external agencies will make any difference.

There is evidence that companies spend much more on marketing than they do on research and development. They also inflate the cost of developing new drugs – Goldacre cites companies claiming that it costs £550-million to bring a new drug to the market, but says others put it at a quarter of that cost.

Some of what Goldacre wants to see is indeed happening – in the US the so-called sunshine Act will mean pharmaceutical companies must say how much they have paid doctors and for which activities. And websites such as ProPublica already enable any patient to see what a doctor has been paid by the industry. One of Goldacre's innumerable discoveries is that in 2010 a Dr Emert in West Hollywood ate $3 065 of food paid for by Pfizer. Since this book's publication, GlaxoSmithKline has already announced it will make all its trial data available. Perhaps Goldacre's medicine is already working. – © Guardian News & Media 2012

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