The year was 2011. FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg proposed loosening conflict of interest rules for doctors sitting on advisory committees because non-compromised doctors were disappearing. The FDA could not find “knowledgeable experts who are free of financial conflicts of interest,” said news reports.
How bad is Pharma’s brazen financial infiltration into US medicine? The New York Times and ProPublica recently reported that Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s own CEO, Dr. Craig B. Thompson, its chief medical officer, Dr. José Baselga, and one of its immunotherapy specialists, Dr. Jedd Wolchok, were swimming in Pharma money.
Thomas sat on the boards of Merck and Charles River Laboratories and actually founded a cancer start-up. Wolchok, says the Times and ProPublica, has links to 31 Pharma companies. Baselga, who has since resigned, received undisclosed millions from Pharma.
I have personally attended medical conferences where doctors unflinchingly show slide after slide of Pharma companies who pay them as if the payments did not affect their presentations to follow.
The responses of doctors exposed for the payola/bribes are downright embarrassing. Lee Cohen, lead author of a 2006 JAMA article promoting antidepressants during pregnancy listed 76 financial relationships with Pharma that he and the other authors had not mentioned explaining, “We did not view those associations as relevant to this study.”
Entire hospital programs have been Pharma funded. Harvard child psychiatrist Joseph “Risperdal” Biederman approached Johnson & Johnson with a money-making scheme called the Johnson & Johnson Center for the Study of Pediatric Psychopathology at Massachusetts General Hospital to “move forward the commercial goals of J. & J.” and “support the safety and effectiveness of risperidone [Risperdal] in this age group.”
Dr. Mani Pavuluri, who received GlaxoSmithKline dollars, founded the Pediatric Mood Disorders Program and the Pediatric Brain Research and InterventioN (BRAIN) Center at the University of Illinois, conflicts of interest notwithstanding. She has since left in disgrace.
The corruption also affects our tax dollars. Despite leaving Emory University under a shameful cloud for not disclosing Pharma income and having a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant terminated, Dr. Charles Nemeroff resurfaced at the University of Miami along with our tax dollars in what was widely regarded as undisguised cronyism.
Rather than stopping such conflicts of interest, mainstream medicine is moving toward legitimizing them. Dr. Timothy Wilens, chief of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital readily admits his “ties” to Pharma saying he has “an academic obligation to work with the industry.”
Duke’s Dr. Robert Califf, who became a FDA commissioner after Hamburg, said that “many of us consult with the pharmaceutical industry, which I think is a very good thing. They need ideas and then the decision about what they do is really up to the person who is funding the study.”
A disclosure statement on the website of Duke Clinical Research Institute says “Robert M. Califf, MD, reports receiving research grant support from Novartis Pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson/Scios, Lilly, Merck, and Schering Plough, and consulting fees from Annenberg, Aterovax, Bayer/Ortho McNeil, BMS, Boehringer Ingelheim, GSK, WebMd/theheart.org, Johnson and Johnson/Scios, Kowa Research Institute, McKinsey & Company, Medtronic, Merck, Novartis Pharmaceuticals, Sanofi Aventis, and Schering Plough, and has an equity position with NITROX, LLC.”
Since Califf, Pharma operative Scott Gottlieb now heads the FDA and former Eli Lilly lobbyist Alex Azar now heads Health and Human Services is a clear message that government officials with Pharma ties are fine.
Martha Rosenberg is an award-winning investigative public health reporter who covers the food, drug and gun industries. Her first book, “Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health,” is distributed by Random House. Rosenberg has appeared on CSPAN and NPR and lectured at medical schools and at the Mid-Manhattan Public Library.