The doctors prescribing the drugs don’t know they don’t do what they’re meant to. Nor do their patients. The manufacturers know full well, but they’re not telling.
Drugs are tested by the people who manufacture them, in poorly designed trials, on hopelessly small numbers of weird, unrepresentative patients, and analysed using techniques that are flawed by design, in such a way that they exaggerate the benefits of treatments. Unsurprisingly, these trials tend to produce results that favour the manufacturer. When trials throw up results that companies don’t like, they are perfectly entitled to hide them from doctors and patients, so we only ever see a distorted picture of any drug’s true effects. Regulators see most of the trial data, but only from early on in a drug’s life, and even then they don’t give this data to doctors or patients, or even to other parts of government. This distorted evidence is then communicated and applied in a distorted fashion.
In 2010, researchers from Harvard and Toronto found all the trials looking at five major classes of drug – antidepressants, ulcer drugs and so on – then measured two key features: were they positive, and were they funded by industry? They found more than 500 trials in total: 85% of the industry-funded studies were positive, but only 50% of the government-funded trials were. In 2007, researchers looked at every published trial that set out to explore the benefits of a statin. These cholesterol-lowering drugs reduce your risk of having a heart attack and are prescribed in very large quantities. This study found 192 trials in total, either comparing one statin against another, or comparing a statin against a different kind of treatment. They found that industry-funded trials were 20 times more likely to give results favouring the test drug.
How does this happen? How do industry-sponsored trials almost always manage to get a positive result? Sometimes trials are flawed by design. You can compare your new drug with something you know to be rubbish – an existing drug at an inadequate dose, perhaps, or a placebo sugar pill that does almost nothing. You can choose your patients very carefully, so they are more likely to get better on your treatment. You can peek at the results halfway through, and stop your trial early if they look good. But after all these methodological quirks comes one very simple insult to the integrity of the data. Sometimes, drug companies conduct lots of trials, and when they see that the results are unflattering, they simply fail to publish them.
After this episode, the MHRA and EU changed some of their regulations, though not adequately. They created an obligation for companies to hand over safety data for uses of a drug outside its marketing authorisation; but ridiculously, for example, trials conducted outside the EU were still exempt. Some of the trials GSK conducted were published in part, but that is obviously not enough: we already know that if we see only a biased sample of the data, we are misled. But we also need all the data for the more simple reason that we need lots of data: safety signals are often weak, subtle and difficult to detect. In the case of paroxetine, the dangers became apparent only when the adverse events from all of the trials were pooled and analysed together.
That leads us to the second obvious flaw in the current system: the results of these trials are given in secret to the regulator, which then sits and quietly makes a decision. This is the opposite of science, which is reliable only because everyone shows their working, explains how they know that something is effective or safe, shares their methods and results, and allows others to decide if they agree with the way in which the data was processed and analysed. Yet for the safety and efficacy of drugs, we allow it to happen behind closed doors, because drug companies have decided that they want to share their trial results discretely with the regulators. So the most important job in evidence-based medicine is carried out alone and in secret. And regulators are not infallible, as we shall see.
Missing data poisons the well for everybody. If proper trials are never done, if trials with negative results are withheld, then we simply cannot know the true effects of the treatments we use. Evidence in medicine is not an abstract academic preoccupation. When we are fed bad data, we make the wrong decisions, inflicting unnecessary pain and suffering, and death, on people just like us.
This is such a secretive and shameful situation that even trying to document it in public can be a fraught business. In 2006, a paper was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Jama), one of the biggest medical journals in the world, describing how common it was for researchers doing industry-funded trials to have these kinds of constraints placed on their right to publish the results. The study was conducted by the Nordic Cochrane Centre and it looked at all the trials given approval to go ahead in Copenhagen and Frederiksberg. (If you’re wondering why these two cities were chosen, it was simply a matter of practicality: the researchers applied elsewhere without success, and were specifically refused access to data in the UK.) These trials were overwhelmingly sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry (98%) and the rules governing the management of the results tell a story that walks the now familiar line between frightening and absurd.
For 16 of the 44 trials, the sponsoring company got to see the data as it accumulated, and in a further 16 it had the right to stop the trial at any time, for any reason. This means that a company can see if a trial is going against it, and can interfere as it progresses, distorting the results. Even if the study was allowed to finish, the data could still be suppressed: there were constraints on publication rights in 40 of the 44 trials, and in half of them the contracts specifically stated that the sponsor either owned the data outright (what about the patients, you might say?), or needed to approve the final publication, or both. None of these restrictions was mentioned in any of the published papers.
When the paper describing this situation was published in Jama, Lif, the Danish pharmaceutical industry association, responded by announcing, in the Journal of the Danish Medical Association, that it was “both shaken and enraged about the criticism, that could not be recognised”. It demanded an investigation of the scientists, though it failed to say by whom or of what. Lif then wrote to the Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty, accusing the Cochrane researchers of scientific misconduct. We can’t see the letter, but the researchers say the allegations were extremely serious – they were accused of deliberately distorting the data – but vague, and without documents or evidence to back them up.
Comment: Huge problem, very frustrating for me as a pediatrician. I have refused to speak to drug reps or give samples for years– don’t go to their lunches or whatever, won’t use their pens, because I don’t want to accidentally remember misinformation and think I read it somewhere reputable– except, does it almost even matter, when I have little chance of reading correct information anyway?