Saturday, December 13, 2008

Ghostwriting and the New Gilded Age

What exactly is going in America right now? Are we better off just assuming that truth and transparency are elusive? The Blagojevich scandal that now dominates the headlines is merely the apotheosis of a trend toward corruption and dishonesty in all facets of American life. In sports, the feats and record setting performances of an entire era are tainted by the specter of steroids. In journalism, the fabrication scandals of Phillip Glass and Jayson Blair aroused doubt as to the veracity of the stories we read everyday in our newspapers. In finance, the thieves of Wall St. are walking away from the greatest financial disaster in 80 years, their own pockets lined with gold. Our Commander in Chief cavalierly led us into a calamitious, profligate war under false pretences.

And now we hear of unscrupulousness in the the field of science. One would think that, even in this jaded time of relentless exploitation and frivolity, something like the scientific method would be sacrosanct. Not so much. The NY Times reports that the pharmaceutical company Wyeth paid ghostwriters to produce articles for the medical literature supporting the safe use of Prempro (a hormone replacement drug given to women for alleviation of the symptoms of menopause). Subsequent data (real science) has shown that treating menopause with estrogen is extrememly dangerous; a woman's risk of developing breast cancer is increased by 5%-6% for every year of use. In fact, the decline in the incidence of breast cancer has been attributed to the fact that the use of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) has decreased over the past five years. Just this past week, the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium presented indubitable evidence from the Women's Health Initiative that HRT doubles a woman's risk of acquiring breast cancer.

It seems that Wyeth subcontracted the business of science paper creation out to a private firm called DesignWrite. The completed papers were then given to chosen physicians for review and the final product was then forwarded to medical journals with the name of said prominent doctor listed on the abstract as author. Now this isn't a small thing. This isn't something that ought to get swept under the rug as soon as the next news cycle washes in to shore. The ethical compromises that are apparent in this are staggering. We have to live in a world where 2+2=4, no matter who is performing the computation. We have to be able to trust our science. There has to be a complete separation between the hard cold reality of pure empiric science and the vested interests of a corporation whose profits depend on whether an experiment turns out one way or the other. Our medical journals need to draw a line in the sand; no more papers "sponsored" in any shape or form by the pharmaceutical or medical device industries will be published. One small step at a time, we have to re-assert the primacy of truth and objectivity in our lives. One would think that science would be the easiest place to start.


Bianca Castafiore? said...

No one remembers the Great Neurontin Steam Engine... in part because so many are still on board. It may be the most expensive and potentially dangerous Placebo-Effect being actively hawked and chatted up. Oops, I mean *prescribed*.

The short of it? You're right. Science ought to be so clear and pure as to write itself.

DrWes said...


Regrettably, doctors are not immune from criticism. Two bits to ponder:


When it takes money to do research, and political standing (and one's existence) at academic institutions is directly proportional to the size of research grants they are awarded, can we really expect science to be immune from corruption?

MiamiMed said...

Someone has to pay for research, and everyone has an agenda. Rather than preventing pharmaceutical money from contributing to scientific research, we should look much more closely at where data is coming from before we prescribe things.

MSN Student said...

There will never be truth & objectivity in science as long as the scientists are men. Humans can't be separated from human nature, after all. This is why it is imperative that we serve as checks to one another, that independant research is performed to verify our findings, and that deceptions like these are brought out into the light, as you are doing.