In a recent post, I discussed the consequences of the massive conflicts of interest that exist between researchers, doctors and the pharmaceutical industry in the U.S. and abroad.
On June 8th the New York Times published an article underscoring these consequences and illuminating the risks that inevitably come with financial ties between researchers and drug companies.
The article revealed that Dr. Joseph Biederman, a world-renowned child psychiatrist at Harvard, accepted at least $1.6 million in consulting fees from drug makers from 2000 to 2007 but did not disclose any of this income to university officials. By failing to report this income, Dr. Biederman and colleagues may have violated both federal and university research rules designed to prevent conflicts of interest.
Dr. Biederman is one of the most influential researchers in child psychiatry. Although many of his studies are small and often financed by pharmaceutical companies, his work has nevertheless directly contributed to a controversial 40-fold increase from 1994 to 2003 in the diagnosis of pediatric bipolar disorder and a concurrent rise in the use of powerful antipsychotic medicines in children.
We know from my previous post that it has been shown that studies funded by pharmaceutical companies are more likely to show positive results for the drug. We also know that the veracity of clinical trials which are the basis of approval of new drugs by the FDA has been called into question in recent studies because of three major flaws: conflicts of interest on the part of investigators (like Biederman); inappropriate involvement of research sponsors (drug companies) in study design and management; and publication bias in disseminating results (if a study has negative results, the drug company doesn’t publish it).
When a researcher like Dr. Biederman is paid millions by a drug company to study it’s product, we must wonder whether we can expect his work to be objective and accurate. But when that researcher repeatedly lies about the money he received, the integrity of his work should be in serious doubt.
In one revealing example, Dr. Biederman reported no income from Johnson & Johnson for 2001 in a disclosure report filed with Harvard University. When asked to check again, he said he received $3,500. But Johnson & Johnson told Congressional investigators that Mr. Biederman was paid $58,169 in 2001.
The consulting arrangements of Dr. Biederman’s entire research group at Harvard were already controversial because of the researcher’s advocacy of unapproved (”off-label”) uses of psychiatric medicines in children. Dr. Biederman and his colleagues have promoted the aggressive diagnosis and treatment of childhood bipolar disorder with antipsychotic drugs - although these drugs have never been approved for such use. In fact, neuroleptic drugs have not been approved for use in children at all.
As a result of Dr. Biederman’s promotion of both the diagnosis and treatment for childhood bipolar disorder, antipsychotic drug use in children has exploded. Roughly half a million children and teenagers were given at least one prescription for an antipsychotic in 2007, including 20,500 under 6 years of age, according to Medco Health Solutions, a pharmacy benefit manager.
The dramatic increase in antipsychotic prescriptions in children has occurred despite the lack of evidence that these medication improve children’s lives over time. On the contrary, it is well known that children are susceptible to the weight gain and metabolic problems caused by the drugs. Children typically gain twice as much weight in the first six months on atypical neuroleptic drugs (risperidone, olanzapine, etc.) as they should through normal growth, adding an average of 2 to 3 inches to their waistline. This is mostly abdominal fat, which also increases their risk of diabetes and heart disease.
There is also some evidence which suggests that these drugs may cause permanent changes to the structure and function of the brain (Breggin 1997). In other words, they cause brain damage.
The research of Dr. Biederman’s group, which has served as the basis for the rise in bipolar diagnoses and antipsychotic use in children, has been widely criticized by other psychiatrists and researchers.
The studies published by Dr. Biederman’s group were so small and “loosely” designed that they were largely inconclusive. In some studies testing antipsychotic drugs, the group defined improvement as a decline of 30 percent or more on a scale called the Young Mania Rating Scale, which is well below the 50 percent change that most researchers use as the standard.
Controlling for bias in these types of studies is particularly important, given that the scale is subjective and depends on reports from physicians, parents and children.
More broadly, psychiatrists have said that revelations of undisclosed payments from drug makers to leading researchers are especially damaging for psychiatry.
“The price we pay for these kinds of revelations is credibility, and we just can’t afford to lose any more of that in this field,” said Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, executive director of the Stanley Medical Research Institute, which finances psychiatric studies. “In the area of child psychiatry in particular, we know much less than we should, and we desperately need research that is not influenced by industry money.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.