St. Petersburg Times
A Times Editorial
The pharmaceutical industry’s corrupting influence on medical research has reached a new low with a case that has stained the reputations of Harvard University and three of its top researchers in child psychiatry. It took a congressional investigation to uncover a conflict of interest that could violate federal and university rules. As a result, the credibility of a supposed breakthrough in treating childhood bipolar disease is now in doubt.
Dr. Joseph Biederman and two colleagues — who have promoted the use of antipsychotic drugs to treat bipolar children — withheld information about payments they were getting from drugmakers. While the Harvard faculty members were doing their research, some of it paid for by taxpayers, they were quietly taking millions of dollars from drug companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Eli Lilly and others that profited from the findings, the New York Times reported.
The researchers were supposed to report earnings in excess of $10,000 as consultants for drug companies, but they failed to do so. Even after Senate investigators forced Biederman to disclose his income, he reported receiving less than the drug companies say they gave him. In all, the three researchers accepted drug company payments of at least $2.6-million over the past seven years.
Did such hefty inducements affect the outcome of their research? It’s a question that so far is unanswered. The doctors’ findings have been influential but controversial, with 500,000 bipolar children being prescribed antipsychotic drugs. Some doctors say the medication saves young lives, though the side effects can be serious. Others say it is an experimental treatment that hasn’t been proved effective over time.
There is no doubt what effect the scandal has had on the medical research field, which relies on a voluntary honor system. “The price we pay for these kinds of revelations is credibility, and we just can’t afford to lose any more of that in this field,” said Dr. E. Fuller Torrey of the Stanley Medical Research Institute.
Neither the pharmaceutical industry nor the medical researchers they try to influence can be trusted under the current system. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, wants to create a national registry of drug research to keep track of such payments. Maybe a new bureaucracy isn’t the answer, but something has to be done before people are injured and the public loses all trust in medical research.