Hollywood Sees Corruption in Pharma, and Suddenly Scientists are the Bad Guys
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“Coma” (1978) brings us to a hospital in which young, seemingly healthy patients emerge from minor surgery in comas, leading to their transfer to a long-term care facility. One young doctor becomes suspicious after a friend of hers suffers this fate. Her sleuthing reveals a conspiracy: patients have deliberately been put into comas by corrupt physicians and their accomplices seeking to profit by selling off the patient’s organs to the highest bidder. The doctor manages, at great personal risk, to expose the evildoers at the film’s conclusion.
In “The Fugitive” (1993), corrupt drug executives of Devlin MacGregor Pharmaceuticals alter clinical trial data to remove evidence of serious liver side effects that would prevent their drug from being approved by the FDA. This leads to the murder of a doctor’s wife, for which he is blamed. A fugitive, he undertakes a frantic search for his wife’s killer before he can be imprisoned for her murder. He successfully exposes the corrupt drug company leadership in the movie’s climax. The rationale for the murder was unique to the film; malevolent pharma execs played no role in the original TV series on which the film was based.
In the thriller “Deep Blue Sea” (1999), a team of biotech scientists is working to develop a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Under pressure from their financial backers to get results ASAP or have their project shut down, they undertake the illegal (as well as ill-considered) approach of using gene therapy techniques to enhance the brain size of mako sharks. Of course, this makes the sharks smarter and eventually leads to a murderous rampage that involves munching most of the unscrupulous scientists and their financial backers.
In the 2005 film “The Constant Gardener” (based on John Le Carre’s novel), the Swiss pharmaceutical company KVH and it’s African partner ThreeBees go to great lengths, including murder, to cover up the severe side effects of a new tuberculosis medicine being improperly tested in Kenya. The conspiracy involves not just the pharmaceutical company and its distributor, but corrupt politicians in Africa and England. At the film’s end the conspiracy is uncovered through the efforts of the title character, the diplomat husband of the murder victim.
All of the films above diverge from earlier portrayals of doctors and biomedical researchers engaged in the search for new drugs and treatments. Have any of you seen Edward G. Robinson in the title role of “Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet” (1940), detailing the discovery of a treatment for syphilis? How about the 1936 film “The Story of Louis Pasteur,” which recounts the discovery of vaccines for anthrax and rabies? Heroic biomedical scientists also make appearances in other films, such as “Awakenings” (1990) “Medicine Man” (1992) and “Outbreak” (1995). Sure, there have been movies about scientists trying to play God (and receiving their comeuppance) nearly as long as there have been films, “Frankenstein” (1931) being a classic example. But the more recent trend of corrupt biotech and pharma companies is relatively new.
How is it that pharma’s reputation has fallen so badly that it is now demonized in the movies? What have they done to deserve this? A search of my archives revealed numerous recent examples of questionable, if not outright illegal behavior that may not have spawned this cinematic trend, but certainly continue to show the industry in a bad light. Some recent illustrations: