Hollywood Sees Corruption in Pharma, and Suddenly Scientists are the Bad Guys

12/7/09

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that will rival their own, more expensive brand-namemedications. For example, Bristol-Myers Squibb paid a $2.1 million fine as well a $125 million shareholder settlement over the company’s failed attempt to negotiate a favorable drug patent settlement with the generic manufacturer Apotex. While not currently illegal, the Federal Trade Commission is trying to curb this egregious practice and has estimated it would save consumers some $3.5 billion annually.

Off-Label Drug Marketing. This is the practice of marketing drugs for uses they were not approved for by the FDA. This happens so often, it is clearly considered a cost of doing business in the industry. Recent settlements with the government include Pfizer ($2.3 billion dollar fine), Eli Lilly ($1.4 billion), Cephalon ($425 million), and Otsuka ($4 million). Part of what Pfizer paid ($1.19 billion) constituted the largest criminal fine in U.S. history.

Corrupt CEOs. This is certainly not exclusive to the pharma industry, but where do they find these guys? In the past few years, we’ve seen CEOs canned amid accusations of insider trading (ex-ImClone CEO Sam Waksal), sexual harassment and income tax fraud (ex-Astra CEO Lars Bildman), generating bogus data (ex-Sequenom CEO Harry Stylli), and wire fraud (ex-InterMune CEO W. Scott Harkonen), for distributing a press release that falsely portrayed clinical trial results.

Ghostwritten Science Articles. These are papers that are written for scientific journals by drug company employees, not the independent academics who were listed as authors. They are generally crafted to show the company’s drugs in a positive light, and are supposed to carry weight because of the credibility of the named authors. This apparently widespread—and deceptive—practice has led scientific journals to respond with (what else?) “ghostbusting.”

Fake Medical Journals. In was revealed this year that in 2003 Merck paid Elsevier, the publisher of many peer-reviewed scientific journals, to print several issues of The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine, which was not peer reviewed and was not a legitimate medical journal. This was simply an advertising vehicle for Merck in the disguise of a real publication. Hooking up with a legitimate publisher of biologic journals helped to sell the illusion.

Serious Prescription Drug Pollution. Drug levels in treated wastewater from a plant where Indian drug companies dump their residues were 150 times higher than the highest level detected in the US. Be thankful you don’t have to drink this stuff. This problem is hardly unique to India. In the US, antibiotics, anti-convulsants, sex hormones and other pharmaceuticals have been found in the drinking supplies of at least 41 million Americans.

Raising Drug Prices. In 2009, pharma companies have raised drug prices an average of about 9% at a time when the Consumer Price Index—a common measure of price inflation in many consumer goods—has fallen 1.3%. This was the highest increase in drug prices in years.

Attempting to Fix Company Mistakes Via Legislation. The Medicines Company mistakenly filed some patent extension paperwork one day later than it should have. The mistake will cost the company four years of patent protection on its drug bivalirudin (Angiomax), and potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. To fix this, the company has spent millions of dollars on lobbyists … Next Page »

Stewart Lyman is Owner and Manager of Lyman BioPharma Consulting LLC in Seattle. He provides strategic advice to clients on their research programs, collaboration management issues, as well as preclinical data reviews. Follow @

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  • http://www.spreadingscience.com Richard Gayle

    Stewart,

    Since my lifelong dream has been to be a script doctor (I could have fixed Outbreak so it would not have been quite as ridiculous), I enjoyed your article.

    And if Brendan Fraser can be a great John Crowley, the biotech industry might be helped. However, with a release date in January, I am not too hopeful that great is in the stars.

    I do expect that corporations, including biotech, will continue to be portrayed as corrupt, no matter how much better they become in real life. It makes for an easier narrative in many ways. I just watched A Sound of Thunder this weekend where Ben Kingsley plays the corrupt president of a time travel company. This industry does not even exist yet but their corporations are corrupt? I expect evil biotech companies to continue to be fodder in the future.

    I am a little hopeful, though, that there might be a new trend, at least where scientists are concerned. The researcher played by Sigourney Weaver in the upcoming Avatar, appears to have a conscience that is lacking in rest of the corporation. That is a nice first step.

    And the moral center of the movie 2012, which I think is the best movie of its kind, is Dr. Arian Helmsley, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. His scientific collaborations set the plot in motion and his humanity is responsible for saving tens of thousands of people. Plus he gets the girl in the end. Best make-believe scientist in years.

    At least portraying researchers as ‘fighting the man,’ instead of being complicit partners, is a big step up. And showing them to actually be full of strong emotions and display strong moral standards, instead of being an unemotional automaton, is a closer depiction of reality.

  • steve s

    And don’t forget the film Mission Impossible II, where an evil biotech company based in Australia developed the only cure for a pandemic disease that they planned to unleash upon the world. Selling the only cure for the disease was going to be worth untold billions of dollars. Thanks to Tom Cruze, of course, these super bio-villains did not succeed.

  • watchdogonscience

    Stewart Lyman writes a great article here. He outlines some of the egregious behavior from pharmaceutical companies whose power and wealth have allowed a laxity toward public health and safety…all in the name of greed.

    And Hollywood has it right in trying to convey some of these concepts that Mr. Lyman talks about through cinematography. It is important that Hollywood stay the course, too.

    Science is now so tied into big money that corruption and loss of public health and safety rights are inevitable, not only from the egregious behavior from powerful Pharma, but also from the academic world who froth over patent rights and who has become monetarily entrenched with big Pharma. Together, they make one powerful network of scientific machinery that is able to manipulate media, government and legislation to their favor without due consideration of public rights and public health and safety.

    Here is a link to a story that should open your eyes to our current day loss of public rights in the biotech arena regarding public health and safety: http://blip.tv/file/2061380. This isn’t Hollywood. It is real stuff.

    Unfortunately there is little funding for public advocacy groups to protect public health and safety. So to some extent the public needs Hollywood to continue to tell stories which help educate us about these issues, issues that are subject to human rights and public health and safety abuses.

    Good job, Mr. Lyman. Good job, Hollywood.

  • CMCguy

    Talk about the impact of sensationalistic/tabloid journalism on reputations and perhaps would lend more credence to regaining public opinion. There have no doubt been too many unfortunate and unsavory incidents as indeed the money involved attracts temptation and even overt criminals but to blanketly stereotype and negate the positive contributions of the majority because the actions of a few is straightforward prejudice. Scientists are people too so can be flawed but I think most have a desire to help others through their work, otherwise they would have gotten MBAs to obtain more immediate rewards.

    Unfortunately this conversation should not just about a Pharma problem but is overall largely deterioration in culture and ethics that have created the events you list. To hold Hollywood up as a truth bearer is ludicrous and suggest you do a similar listing of misdeeds in that industry and expect would it would as long, if not longer.

  • Chemjobber

    I did a little writeup of Mr. Suddaby’s work at my blog: http://chemjobber.blogspot.com/2010/01/don-suddaby-real-and-reel-chemist.html

  • http://www.lymanbiopharma.com Stewart Lyman

    Extraordinary Measures, the new biotech themed film, has finally hit our local movie theaters. The film is very loosely based on the book The Cure by Geeta Anand. Both the film and the book document John Crowley’s (played in the film by Brendan Fraser) desperate efforts to find a cure for Pompe’s disease, a fatal illness that afflicts two of his three children. This involves quitting his job as a high powered Bristol Myers executive to start a new biotech company based on the potentially curative science of a cantankerous researcher, Robert Thornhill, who is played in the film by Harrison Ford. While the real life story if fascinating, I must say I didn’t care too much for the book, and even less so for the film. Rather than review the film at length, I’ll simply return to the main them of my recent column. Big Biotech is rendered in this film in a not very flattering light. If the top executives in the film were any colder you would be able to see the ice crystals in their skin. The key corporate characteristic displayed, profit making, is only briefly balanced at the end of the film by a compassionate act by a biotech executive. Scientists in the film are generic stock figures in lab coats with the exception of the Harrison Ford character, who comes across as so cranky, bitter, selfish, and unpleasant that it’s hard to understand how any of the other characters ever puts up with him. Actually, it is explained why they do: it’s because he’s brilliant, of course! Because of this, he is able to determine at the film’s dramatic conclusion that the special drug given to the children is working solely because they are laughing (I wish I could patent this as a diagnostic test). Despite the occasional declarative speeches in which he rails against the corrupting influences all around him, nothing about him is believable. I’ll promise not to search the world looking for lost ancient artifacts in my fedora and to keep my hands off the Millennium Falcon and Princess Leia if Harrison Ford will only agree not to do another scientist portrayal. Don Suddaby’s humble chemist in Lorenzo’s Oil stands head and shoulders above the poorly written and acted biochemist in this film.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/ltimmerman/ Luke Timmerman

    Stewart—great comments, I can’t help but smile. I’m thinking this film isn’t worth my $10, maybe I’ll watch it when it hits Netflix, maybe not