Forbes contributing writer takes aim at Harvard professor who pans pharma

Disclosure Dilemma

Leading cancer researcher Dr. Jose Baselga, the former chief medical officer of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, did not disclose income he received from biopharmaceutical companies in articles that he published in major medical journals and, as a result, resigned from his position. This prompted a scathing response from Dr. Marcia Angell, a senior lecturer at Harvard Medical School and the first woman to serve as editor-in-chief of The New England Journal of Medicine.

According to John LaMattina, a contributing writer for Forbes and former president of Pfizer Global Research and Development, Dr. Angell’s critique of the entire pharmaceutical industry is largely unwarranted. First of all, payments to physicians are made public on pharmaceutical company websites that are updated frequently, making them public knowledge. Secondly, Dr. Angell’s own publication did not notice the lack of a conflict of interest disclosure in papers co-authored by Dr. Baselga, even though the data were in a public database.

More importantly, according to LaMattina, Dr. Angell launched “into a general attack on the pharmaceutical industry and its interactions with physicians.” He quoted her as saying, “What do they (drug companies) get for their money? First, there are the intangibles. It’s human nature to feel warm toward people with whom one collaborates closely, particularly when they are so generous and key opinion leaders become a sort of informal sales force. Second, there’s good evidence that drug company involvement biases research in ways that are not always obvious, often by suppressing negative results.”

While Dr. Angell seems to think that clinical trials supported by companies are biased, every trial clinical trial needs to be approved at an institution’s independent review board, the trials must be approved by the FDA “if they are part of clinical programs intended for inclusion in the filing of a new drug application” and the actual outcome of clinical trials – successes and failures – are made public.

Because the studies are so important, LaMattina believes that they should be conducted at the world’s major medical centers, led by esteemed, independent physicians who are compensated for their efforts in recruiting patients, testing and monitoring the effects of these drugs, presenting these results at major meetings and compensated to attend the meetings. Angell “demands that researchers at academic medical centers not accept any payments other than research support” and that “the results of industry sponsored trials should be viewed skeptically until several different trials reach the same result.”

LaMattina cites the opinion of Dr. Tom Stossel, a hematologist and medical researcher at Harvard Medical School, where he is the American Cancer Society Professor of Medicine: “The ability of physicians and researchers to partner with a large and diverse family of corporate entities, ranging from struggling start-ups, concentrating on early inventions to global giant companies marketing multiple products, has contributed enormous value to human health. Company financial support has enabled academic researchers to undertake projects that would not have been possible to fund by government or other agencies.”

LaMattina concludes that the need to be “vigilant to be certain that studies are run ethically and that results are published accurately and on time.” He believes that it is “wrong and irresponsible” to say that academic-industry partnerships are corrupt.