Journalism

Deadly Medicine

January 2011

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As the months ticked by, and the number of people taking the drug climbed steadily, the F.D.A. began to get reports of adverse reactions, including serious liver damage that sometimes led to death. The F.D.A.’s leadership remained steadfast in its support of the drug, but criticism by the agency’s own researchers eventually leaked out (a very rare occurrence in this close-knit, buttoned-up world). The critics were especially concerned about an ongoing trial in which 4,000 infants and children, some as young as six months, were recruited in more than a dozen countries for an experiment to assess Ketek’s effectiveness in treating ear infections and tonsillitis. The trial had been sanctioned over the objections of the F.D.A.’s own reviewers. One of them argued that the trial never should have been allowed to take place—that it was “inappropriate and unethical because it exposed children to harm without evidence of benefits.” In 2006, after inquiries from Congress, the F.D.A. asked Sanofi-Aventis to halt the trial. Less than a year later, one day before the start of a congressional hearing on the F.D.A.’s approval of the drug, the agency suddenly slapped a so-called black-box warning on the label of Ketek, restricting its use. (A black-box warning is the most serious step the F.D.A. can take short of removing a drug from the market.) By then the F.D.A. had received 93 reports of severe adverse reactions to Ketek, resulting in 12 deaths.

During the congressional hearings, lawmakers heard from former F.D.A. scientists who had criticized their agency’s oversight of the Ketek trials and the drug-approval process. One was Dr. David Ross, who had been the F.D.A.’s chief reviewer of new drugs for 10 years, and was now the national director of clinical public-health programs for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. When he explained his objections, he offered a litany of reasons that could be applied to any number of other drugs: “Because F.D.A. broke its own rules and allowed Ketek on the market. Because dozens of patients have died or suffered needlessly. Because F.D.A. allowed Ketek’s maker to experiment with it on children over reviewers’ protests. Because F.D.A. ignored warnings about fraud. And because F.D.A. used data it knew were false to reassure the public about Ketek’s safety.”

Trials and Error

To have an effective regulatory system you need a clear chain of command—you need to know who is responsible to whom, all the way up and down the line. There is no effective chain of command in modern American drug testing. Around the time that drugmakers began shifting clinical trials abroad, in the 1990s, they also began to contract out all phases of development and testing, putting them in the hands of for-profit companies. It used to be that clinical trials were done mostly by academic researchers in universities and teaching hospitals, a system that, however imperfect, generally entailed certain minimum standards. The free market has changed all that. Today it is mainly independent contractors who recruit potential patients both in the U.S. and—increasingly—overseas. They devise the rules for the clinical trials, conduct the trials themselves, prepare reports on the results, ghostwrite technical articles for medical journals, and create promotional campaigns. The people doing the work on the front lines are not independent scientists. They are wage-earning technicians who are paid to gather a certain number of human beings; sometimes sequester and feed them; administer certain chemical inputs; and collect samples of urine and blood at regular intervals. The work looks like agribusiness, not research.

What began as a mom-and-pop operation has grown into a vast army of formal “contract-research organizations” that generate annual revenue of $20 billion. They can be found conducting trials in every part of the world. By far the largest is Quintiles Transnational, based in Durham, North Carolina. It offers the services of 23,000 employees in 60 countries, and claims that it has “helped develop or commercialize all of the top 30 best-selling drugs.”

Quintiles is privately owned—its investors include two of the U.S.’s top private-equity firms. Other private contractors are public companies, their stock traded on Wall Street. Pharmaceutical Product Development (P.P.D.), a full-service medical contractor based in Wilmington, North Carolina, is a public company with 10,500 employees. It, too, has conducted clinical trials all around the world. In fact, it was involved in the clinical trials for Ketek—a P.P.D. research associate, Ann Marie Cisneros, had been assigned to monitor Dr. Anne Kirkman-Campbell’s testing in Alabama. Cisneros later told the congressional investigating committee that Kirkman-Campbell had indeed engaged in fraud. “But what the court that sentenced her did not know,” Cisneros said, was that “Aventis was not a victim of this fraud.” Cisneros said she had reported her findings of fraud to her employer, P.P.D., and also to Aventis. She told the congressional committee, “What brings me here today is my disbelief at Aventis’s statements that it did not know that fraud was being committed. Mr. Chairman, I knew it, P.P.D. knew it, and Aventis knew it.” Following her testimony the company released a statement saying it regretted the violations that occurred during the study but was not aware of the fraud until after the data was submitted to the F.D.A.

The F.D.A., the federal agency charged with oversight of the food and drugs that Americans consume, is rife with conflicts of interest. Doctors who insist the drug you take is perfectly safe may be collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars from the company selling the drug. (ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit news organization that is compiling an ongoing catalogue of pharmaceutical-company payments to physicians, has identified 17,000 doctors who have collected speaking and consulting fees, including nearly 400 who have received $100,000 or more since 2009.) Quite often, the F.D.A. never bothers to check for interlocking financial interests. In one study, the agency failed to document the financial interests of applicants in 31 percent of applications for new-drug approval. Even when the agency or the company knew of a potential conflict of interest, neither acted to guard against bias in the test results.

Because of the deference shown to drug companies by the F.D.A.—and also by Congress, which has failed to impose any meaningful regulation—there is no mandatory public record of the results of drug trials conducted in foreign countries. Nor is there any mandatory public oversight of ongoing trials. If one company were to test an experimental drug that killed more patients than it helped, and kept the results secret, another company might unknowingly repeat the same experiment years later, with the same results. Data is made available to the public on a purely voluntary basis. Its accuracy is unknown. The oversight that does exist often is shot through with the kinds of ethical conflicts that Wall Street would admire. The economic incentives for doctors in poor countries to heed the wishes of the drug companies are immense. An executive at a contract-research organization told the anthropologist Adriana Petryna, author of the book When Experiments Travel: “In Russia, a doctor makes two hundred dollars a month, and he is going to make five thousand dollars per Alzheimer’s patient” that he signs up. Even when the most flagrant conflicts are disclosed, penalties are minimal. In truth, the same situation exists in the United States. There’s just more of a chance here, though not a very large one, that adverse outcomes and tainted data will become public. When the pharmaceutical industry insists that its drugs have been tested overseas in accordance with F.D.A. standards, this may be true—but should provide little assurance.

The F.D.A. gets its information on foreign trials almost entirely from the companies themselves. It conducts little or no independent research. The investigators contracted by the pharmaceutical companies to manage clinical trials are left pretty much on their own. In 2008 the F.D.A. inspected just 1.9 percent of trial sites inside the United States to ensure that they were complying with basic standards. Outside the country, it inspected even fewer trial sites—seven-tenths of 1 percent. In 2008, the F.D.A. visited only 45 of the 6,485 locations where foreign drug trials were being conducted.

The pharmaceutical industry dismisses concerns about the reliability of clinical trials conducted in developing countries, but the potential dangers were driven home to Canadian researchers in 2007. While reviewing data from a clinical trial in Iran for a new heart drug, they discovered that many of the results were fraudulent. “It was bad, so bad we thought the data was not salvageable,” Dr. Gordon Guyatt, part of the research group at McMaster University in Hamilton, told Canada’s National Post.

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