Goldacre on Pharma Research Credibility

By Frank Pasquale

Ben Goldacre is once again arguing that pharmaceutical “industry-funded trials are too common, can’t be trusted — and bring pills to market that likely don’t work.” The NY Times features his argument today. He has exhaustively compiled problematic practices that add up to a shocking claim: “the entire evidence base for medicine has been undermined by a casual lack of transparency.” For example, here’s one vignette from his most recent book:

In October 2010, a group of researchers were finally able to bring together all the trials that had ever been conducted on reboxetine. Through a long process of investigation — searching in academic journals but also arduously requesting data from the manufacturers and gathering documents from regulators — they were able to assemble all the data, both from trials that were published and from those that had never appeared in academic papers.

When all this trial data was put together it produced a shocking picture. Seven trials had been conducted comparing reboxetine against placebo. Only one, conducted in 254 patients, had a neat, positive result, and that one was published in an academic journal for doctors and researchers to read. But six more trials were conducted in almost 10 times as many patients. All of them showed that reboxetine was no better than a dummy sugar pill. None of these trials were published. I had no idea they existed.

I have not come across a convincing industry or FDA response to Goldacre’s work. (I don’t find this brief letter particularly compelling.). He offers several case studies like the reboxetine one. Isn’t it time to fund systematic reviews of the evidence of effectiveness on all drugs?

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First Amendment & Pharma: Taking Freedom of Information Seriously

By Frank Pasquale

Back in 2011, the AJLM had a symposium issue anticipating major issues in 1st Amendment limits on FDA restrictions on off-label marketing. It was a prescient move, as Prof. Robertson’s post shows. Just as it did in Sorrell, the Second Circuit is using free speech jurisprudence to significantly expand pharmaceutical companies’ freedom of action to promote drugs:

The ruling, in United States v. Caronia, involved the conviction of Alfred Caronia, a former sales representative for Orphan Medical, which was later acquired by Jazz Pharmaceutical. Mr. Caronia was selling Xyrem, a drug approved for excessive daytime sleepiness, known as narcolepsy. He was accused of promoting it to doctors as a treatment for insomniafibromyalgia and other conditions. . . .

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Sunder on Patents and Access to Drugs

By Frank Pasquale

Last week, the blog Concurring Opinions featured a symposium on Madhavi Sunder’s new book, From Goods to a Good Life: Intellectual Property and Global Justice. A chapter relevant to health law scholars is available online, here.  The chapter focuses on access to drugs in less developed countries (LDCs), and makes the following case:

Not too long ago, an HIV-positive diagnosis was tantamount to a death sentence — for people in the East and the West, in the South and the North. The drug companies that perfected the antiretroviral therapies invested princely sums to find these miracle cures. To justify their investment, they rely on the promise of a patent . . . . Thus patents have saved countless lives. But this structure has its limits. Indeed, the evidence is mounting that in crucial ways patents fail to promote the health of people in the developing world, and in some cases in the developed world as well.

The chapter begins by telling the moving story of Thembisa Mkhosana, one of thousands of South Africans who cannot afford the third-line antiretroviral treatments needed to survive AIDS.   “My blood test results have worsened dramatically,” Mkhosana told a reporter, “And now I suddenly have fever and am in pain. I’m really worried.”  ”I know that I’m going to die,” she said, but “who is going to look after my children?”  Her story appears in this video.

Mkhosana’s plight raises difficult interpretive issues.  Is she “collateral damage” from a patent system that depends on the strict rules that deny her access to the medicine she needs? Or is this an entirely avoidable tragedy, a consequence of misapplied and misinterpreted laws?  Sunder makes the case for the latter view very convincingly, while providing a compact and accessible account of the development of international patent policy over the past 20 years.

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