Interview with Harriet Washington (Part III): Withholding Data from Journals and Flooding the Airwaves with Misleading Ads

I now realize that these are companies that pervert medical research by cherry-picking data. They delete the fact that strokes, deaths and heart attacks were caused by their products but are quite willing to tell the stories of the people whose migraines were banished. And I realized that that can also be done with statements from someone like me. Because if you look at my book, everything I write about the drug companies is not negative. I write, for example, that there are cases were drug companies sacrificed profits to supply medications to people in the developing world. I think that when drug companies do that, they should be praised; that’s what we want them to do. When they exhibit positive behavior, fairness dictates that we acknowledge that because we want to encourage them to do this.

But what if the company should go to my book, pick out all the positive things I say and put out the message that this is what Harriet Washington thinks about drug companies? That’s what they do with medications and it’s also what they can do with medical ethicists’ statements. That’s the real danger. The medical ethicist is saying what he believes, with the Pharma check in his back pocket, but later on someone can selectively publish those statements and perhaps identify him as someone who appeared on a drug company panel, or who a drug company sponsors. It’s subtle but very serious.

A Poster Child for Corruption

To give an extreme example of an ethical breach, which I found just breathtaking, can you briefly tell the story of Pearson Sunderland III, the former chief of the NIH Geriatric Psychiatry branch, who received substantial payments from Pfizer while on the NIH payroll. What did he do that became so controversial?

Tissue samples worth $6 million had been collected over a period of 15 years by the NIH. These tissue samples were very important to Alzheimer’s disease research. They were samples that also came with information about the people they were taken from and their clinical course — what was wrong with them, how they fared, that sort of thing. When you are doing research on Alzheimer’s, this sort of resource is invaluable.

These tissue samples went missing. Sunderland told some people that the freezers malfunctioned so that all the samples degraded and had to be discarded. He told others that the samples had been lost and nobody knew what had happened to them. There was so much money involved and these were so important in Alzheimer’s research that a Congressional hearing was convened and they invited him in to give an explanation. When he came to testify before the committee and they asked him about the tissue samples, he took the Fifth [refusing to answer on the grounds that it might tend to incriminate him].

This was a first for an NIH researcher, who was a government employee. So the committee determined to find out from the drug companies themselves what might be going on between him and them. They went to the major companies and made them provide information about all researchers to whom they had made payments in the recent past. It turned out that this researcher was under contract to Pfizer. The committee was shocked because this was contrary to NIH rules, and when asked point blank whether he had a relationship with any drug company, he had said no.

He had been paid approximately half a million dollars, as I recall.

Yes. They also found out that he had given the tissue samples to Pfizer, and that he had received authorship rights, partial ownership of the patent and this substantial sum of money. So here were these tissue samples, worth $6 million, painstakingly gathered over a period of years at government expense. He turned them over to Pfizer and received something like $600,000 from Pfizer. So Pfizer got the tissue samples at a bargain basement rate — tissue samples paid for by our tax dollars. Pfizer used these samples, among other things, to test and devise Aricept, which became the highest-grossing medication for Alzheimer’s disease, making Pfizer an enormous amount of money.

Needless to say, what Sunderland had done was in clear violation of his contract with NIH but he had a very good lawyer who was able to get the charges against him dismissed as paperwork violations. In the end, Sunderland did no jail time, just community service providing psychiatric services. Many people saw this as a very inappropriate punishment.

Was Pfizer punished for this?

No, Pfizer denied all wrong-doing. I’m not a lawyer, but it is actually possible that Pfizer did not break any rules. Morally wrong, yes. But legally, I’m not sure. They are not the ones legally constrained from working with a researcher; it’s the researcher who is not supposed to work with them. The bottom line is that a law had been passed that prevented researchers from having such relationships with companies. Interestingly, before the law was passed, influential government researchers came out of the woodwork saying that there shouldn’t be a law against their working with pharmaceutical companies. They said, in effect, that researchers should be trusted and respected as professionals. However, this case illustrates dramatically why this law is necessary.