Page 4 of 4

The Deadly Corruption of Clinical Trials

When you risk life and limb to help test a drug, are you helping science—or Big Pharma? One patient's tragic, and telling, story.

In the US, the primary bodies charged with protecting research subjects are known as institutional review boards. (Read how IRBs are becoming privatized, next page.) According to the University of Minnesota, the purpose of its IRB is to "protect the rights and welfare of human research subjects." However, when the university's IRB officials were deposed under oath, they refused to admit that protecting subjects was their responsibility. "So it's not the institutional review board's purpose to protect clinical trial subjects, is that what you're saying?" asked Gale Pearson, one of the attorneys representing Mary Weiss. "That's true," replied Moira Keane, the director of the IRB. Astonished, Pearson kept returning to the question, to make sure that she understood it correctly. Keane refused to budge. Instead, she claimed that the role of the IRB was to make sure that Olson and the trial sponsor had a plan to protect subjects. (If this were true, it would render IRBs worthless: The sponsor and investigator are the ones that the IRB is supposed to protect subjects from.)

The University of Minnesota doesn't exactly have a stellar record of investigating internal misconduct. In 1994, the director of child and adolescent psychiatry, Dr. Barry Garfinkel, was sentenced to federal prison for five felonies related to research fraud involving the Ciba-Geigy drug Anafranil (clomipramine). The research assistant who blew the whistle in 1989 lost her job, and under the terms of a secret agreement struck with Garfinkel, the university kept the fraud secret for four years, until he was finally indicted. In 1995, the university was sanctioned by the National Institutes of Health after revelations that the head of transplant surgery, Dr. John Najarian, had generated millions of dollars for the university by illegally manufacturing and selling an immunosuppressant drug without FDA approval; an investigation by the Minneapolis Star Tribune revealed that the university had known of the illegal activity for years. Still more scandals have recently emerged, including a Senate investigation of the chairman of spinal surgery, Dr. David Polly, for failing to disclose $1.2 million he had been paid to consult for the device manufacturer Medtronic, and a series of investigative reports in the New York Times about the industry ties of Minnesota physicians, including some connected to the university. When the scandals began to escalate several years ago, Dr. Deborah Powell, then the dean of the university's medical school, appointed a task force to devise a new conflict-of-interest policy. The policy was discarded after the Star Tribune revealed that the co-chair of the task force, Dr. Leo Furcht, had funneled $500,000 of university grant money into his own private company, which he later sold for $9.5 million. Furcht remains chairman of the laboratory medicine and pathology department at the university.

 

In 2007, the American Journal of Psychiatry published the results of the CAFE study. Among the 18 "serious adverse events" recorded for the 400 subjects in the study were an alleged homicide and five suicide attempts, including two successful suicides, both by patients taking Seroquel. (One of these patients, of course, was Dan Markingson.) According to the study authors—three AstraZeneca employees and seven academic physicians, many of whom also consulted for the company—the suicides occurred "despite the close attention provided in clinical research aftercare programs." The authors claimed that the CAFE study showed Seroquel to be of "comparable effectiveness" to Zyprexa and Risperdal for first-episode patients.

According to some experts, the study could hardly have shown otherwise, because it was designed to produce a good result for Seroquel. When I showed the published study to Dr. Peter Tyrer, the editor of the British Journal of Psychiatry, he said, "I would have major problems accepting a manuscript of that nature." According to Tyrer, the main problem is the small sample size. Of the 400 subjects enrolled, all but 119 stopped taking the drug before the yearlong study was finished. With so few subjects, the CAFE study was statistically underpowered and thus unlikely to detect any difference in effectiveness between the three drugs. The failure to detect a difference allowed AstraZeneca to claim that Seroquel was as good as the other drugs (or in the language of the study, "non-inferiority"). Tyrer told me, "In scientific terms this study is of very little value."

That's not the only problem. The CAFE study was supposedly designed to test the effectiveness of the three antipsychotics, but the way it did this was by measuring the rate of "all-cause treatment discontinuation," or the percentage of subjects who stopped taking their drug. That is, the CAFE study counted an antipsychotic as "effective" if a subject kept taking it until the end of the study. On the face of it, this type of measurement seems highly misleading; simply because a patient continues to take an antipsychotic does not mean that it is working. Many psychiatrists defend treatment discontinuation as a "pragmatic" way of measuring a drug's overall acceptability, but even by "pragmatic" standards the CAFE study presents a problem. More than 70 percent of subjects in the CAFE study stopped taking their assigned drug, and the most common reason was simply coded as "patient decision." According to Dr. John Davis, the Gillman Professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois-Chicago, the authors of the CAFE study obscured their results by failing to say why patients decided to stop taking the drug—whether patients felt the side effects of the drug were too severe, for example, or if they felt the drug was not working. "It is the hiding of the critical outcomes that gives me pause," he says. "It does not make scientific sense to do a study and not measure one of the most important outcomes."

Yet another problem with the CAFE study is its failure to compare Seroquel to any older antipsychotics. "It's quite a marketing exercise to put all patients in the CAFE study on atypical antipsychotics," says Dr. Glen Spielmans, an associate professor of psychology at Minnesota's Metropolitan State University. "It removes the older drugs from the discussion." One reason AstraZeneca may have done this, he suggests, is that Study 15 had already shown Seroquel to be inferior to the older antipsychotic, Haldol.

The bluntest assessment of the study came from Dr. David Healy, a senior psychiatrist at Cardiff University in Wales. Healy is a former consultant to AstraZeneca, among other pharmaceutical companies, and a prominent critic of the industry. "This is a non-study of the worst kind," he said. "It is designed not to pick up a difference between the three drugs. It looks like an entirely marketing-driven exercise."

If these experts are right, then the study in which Dan Markingson committed suicide was not simply a matter of inadequate informed consent, or financial conflicts of interest, or even failure to monitor a subject's care. The ethical breach was built into the study from the start. It is one thing to ask people to take risks for science, or the common good, or to help other people. It is another thing entirely to ask them to risk their lives for the marketing goals of AstraZeneca.

 

Mary Weiss is a quiet woman, but her experience has left her angry and bitter. It's not hard to see why. In the years since she lost her son, she has written letters and filed complaints to one oversight body after the other, and so far she's gotten little but form letters, rejections, and dismissals. "Well, I don't think the loss can ever be replaced," her friend Mike Howard said in his deposition. "There is probably not a day in Mary's life that she hasn't thought about her son, and there is probably not a week goes by that she doesn't shed tears." Mary told me that until she and I had coffee last year in St. Paul, no one at the university had ever apologized or expressed regret for her son's death. In fact, after Dan died, Mary received a plant with a card from the CAFE study team. In words that echoed the bizarre, grisly message in Dan's suicide note, the card read, "We will miss his smile."

Of all the ways in which Mary Weiss has been damaged by the University of Minnesota, there is one episode that still brings a sting of shame to my face. When the lawsuit over Dan's death was dismissed, the university filed a legal action against Mary, demanding that she pay the university $57,000 to cover its legal expenses. Gale Pearson, one of Mary's attorneys, says that while such suits are technically permissible, she had never seen one filed in her previous 14 years of legal practice. The university agreed to drop the lawsuit against Mary only when she agreed not to appeal the judge's decision. "Maybe they want to chill anyone who might think of challenging the university, even if her child had died," Pearson said. "It gave me a sick feeling."

Page 4 of 4
Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.