Amidst the billion-dollar competition to create the newest blockbuster drug, there's one thing worth more than all the ads money can buy: a single positive mention in a respected medical journal. Doctors rely so heavily on what's printed in journals that a drug's success or failure may be directly affected.
Now, many drug companies are actually writing those articles and then paying doctors to sign their names to them. It's called ghostwriting, reports CBS News Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson.
"The articles are written by drug company researchers, given to an outside doctor to review and sign his or her name to, and then submitted to a journal. In effect, it's like washing dirty money," explains Douglas Peters, a medical malpractice attorney.
It's not illegal, but it can be misleading.
Critics say that's just what happened when Wyeth-Ayerst wanted to create a market demand for its "fen-phen" diet drug, Redux.
Wyeth hired a middleman, a company called Excerpta Medica, to write and get published nine medical journal articles on Redux. Excerpta paid doctors to review and sign the articles, then submitted them to journals with no mention of Wyeth. Excerpta claims it told the doctors that Wyeth was behind all of it.
But Dr. Richard Atkinson, a professor of medicine and nutritional sciences and the director of the Beers-Murphy Clinical Nutrition Center at the University of Wisconsin Madison Medical School, says he wasn't told. He reviewed and signed one of those Redux papers thinking Excerpta was an independent researcher, he says.
"If I knew that a drug company had some role, whatever role, in sponsoring a talk, an article, a symposium, whatever, I think I would be more on my guard to make sure that there was not any bias introduced," says Atkinson.
Biased literature can make a drug sound better or safer than it really is. And unbeknownst to most doctors, it's even finding its way into the most respected medical journals.
Dr. Marcia Angell, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, says that as time passed she was getting more and more ghostwritten papers.
"A drug company that controls the data and has a ghostwriter writing the paper may neglect to write about the side effects of a drug," says Angell.
In a deposition on January 15, 1999, former Wyeth executive Jo Alene Dolan said all drug companies ghostwrite, but it doesn't mean the articles aren't accurate.
When questioned about Atkinson's article, she said, "Apparently we wrote this article for him." She was then asked if it was bought and paid for by Wyeth-Ayerst and replied, "I'm not sure that's the way I would characterize it. It was funded by Wyeth-Ayerst."
Yet Wyeth's middleman, Excerpta Medica, claims it doesn't ghostwrite. It says it "facilitates," that doctors always know about drug industry involvement, and that "the author has final editing authority."
Atkinson did tell Excerpta that article may make edux "sound better than it really is" and suggested some changes. But before the article could be published, Redux was linked to heart and lung problems and pulled from the market.
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