Bitter Pill

When drug companies pay for scientific research, media skepticism goes out the window.


Vanderbilt University researchers recently announced results of a new study comparing the effectiveness of antidepressant drugs and the natural remedy St. John’s wort in the treatment of serious depression. Their findings: The herb doesn’t work, and prescribing it instead of pharmaceuticals such as Prozac and Zoloft is dangerous and irresponsible.

The study’s results, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, were plastered all over the news. In most of the articles on the subject, the fact that the study was commissioned by the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, maker of Zoloft, was buried. In the Reuters version, which was picked up by hundreds of newspapers, that nugget didn’t appear until the 11th of 13 paragraphs; an Associated Press story mentioned the Pfizer connection higher up, but qualified it by noting that in addition to antidepressants, Pfizer manufactures an over-the-counter St. John’s wort product (which, it’s worth noting, brings in a fraction of Zoloft’s $2-per-pill price tag).

The problem of commercially sponsored university research is hardly a new one, but it seems the media still eat up the results as if they weren’t tainted by special interests. Few of the news stories on the Vanderbilt study took note of the dozens of double-blind studies conducted in Europe in recent decades that have found the plant to be an effective remedy for depression.

According to the National Institutes of Health, “German doctors prescribe St. John’s wort about 20 times more often than Prozac, one of the most widely prescribed antidepressants in the United States.” And they don’t do it on faith. A recent German study, published in the British Medical Journal and not underwritten by the pharmaceutical industry, found that St. John’s wort fought mild to moderate depression as effectively as a prescription antidepressant, but had fewer side effects.

How the herb works is still a mystery. The most popular theory is that it increases the production of certain neurotransmitters, chemicals in the brain that are connected to mood. But here’s what the folks at Pfizer and the other pharmaceutical companies don’t want you to know: Scientists don’t know exactly how or why prescription antidepressant drugs work, either — or why some antidepressants work in some people and not in others. Depression itself is a mystery. According to the MedScape Web site, “We know these drugs work, but we have very little idea how. Any discussion of mechanisms of action of psychotropic medication needs to maintain a healthy respect for our ignorance.”

Bits and Pieces

INS MISSING COMPUTERS, GUNS
A Justice Department audit has revealed that the Immigration and Naturalization Service seems to have misplaced at least 61,000 items, including thousands of pricey computers and hundreds of weapons.

BABY’S GOT A BRAND-NEW NUKE
A new report from the Federation of American Scientists looks into a class of bombs now on the Pentagon’s drawing board — low-yield, “earth-penetrating” nuclear weapons. Boosters of the so-called “mini-nukes” contend that the proposed weapons, which would explode underground, could minimize collateral damage (aka civilian deaths). But such claims are misleading. “In fact, because of the large amount of radioactive dirt thrown out in the explosion, the hypothetical 5-kiloton weapon discussed in the accompanying article would produce a large area of lethal fallout.” Furthermore, the federation says “Rather than deterring warfare with another nuclear power … these weapons could be used in conventional conflicts with Third World nations.”