Doc Who Faked Pfizer Studies Gets 6 Months in Prison, Showing Why Gift Bans Are a Good Idea

Last Updated Jun 25, 2010 12:05 PM EDT

Massachusetts anesthesiologist Scott Reuben received six months in prison for faking medical research into Pfizer (PFE)'s Celebrex and Bextra painkillers just as the Bay State's legislature is considering repealing the ban on doctors taking gifts from drug companies. Technically, the two events are unrelated -- but it sure doesn't feel that way once you know Reuben's history.

Reuben was convicted of staging a bogus 2007 pain management study involving patients who had knee surgery. Pfizer paid $73,000 in a research grant for the trial, which was supposed to measure the effectiveness of its Cox-2 painkiller Celebrex in reducing post-operative pain. Ultimately, many of Reuben's pain studies were retracted by medical journals. He wrote 21 manuscripts in 15 years. The journal Anesthesia & Analgesia retracted 10 of Reuben's studies and Anesthesiology retracted three. Six of the studies were funded by Pfizer, Wyeth or Merck (MRK), according to prosecutors' sentencing memo.

If you go to PubMed and plug in "Reuben S coxib" (a search term that picks all of his Cox-2 studies) you can see which studies were actually retracted and which are still sitting in the online medical database unchanged. Of course, we don't know that everything Reuben did was fake ... but how are we to tell the difference if it's got his name on it? This study doesn't bear the "retracted" label, nor does this one nor this one nor this one nor this one.

Here's a Reuben study suggesting Merck's now-banned Vioxx should be used on kids aged 3 to 11 having their tonsils out. Hopefully, they got ice-cream afterward to reduce the chance of stomach ulcers Reuben noticed were aggravated by Celebrex in a different study.

It's not the case that Reuben took the kind of "gifts" from Pfizer that the Massachusetts law bans. But it is the case that Reuben was showered with cash by Big Pharma. Here's what he must pay in restitution to his victims:
  • $296,557 payable to Pfizer
  • $49,375 payable to Merck
  • $8,000 payable to Wyeth (which is now Pfizer)
  • $8,000 payable to Rays of Hope (a breast cancer foundation)
  • Total: $361,932
Pfizer wasn't looking for research that simply broadened doctors' knowledge of how Cox-2 painkillers work. It was almost certainly using that research to bolster its "operate for cash" promotion, in which pharmaceutical sales reps persuaded surgeons to write "protocols" for using Pfizer's Bextra and Celebrex as post-operative painkillers instead of opioid drugs. Such uses were not approved by the FDA.

Reuben's distorted research was largely a product of his suicidal bipolar depression, according to his sentencing memo. But the fact that he was doing it on Pfizer's drugs, and producing results that Pfizer could use, is a function of the source of Reuben's funding: Pfizer and Merck.

Which is why repealing the gift ban is a bad idea. Although the end of meals and freebies for docs "has cut back on local business profits," according to the Boston Globe, there's more at stake here than the fortunes of the catering-services-industrial complex. Pharma company gifts contribute to an atmosphere that biases doctors' opinions toward certain drugs for non-scientific reasons.

The ban should stay, and the Reuben case is one of the reasons why.

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