How Secrecy in Medical Research Harms our Health

David Hammerstein | David Hammerstein's Blog | June 29, 2012

Medical research data remain shrouded in secrecy.  As a result the data is distorted and misrepresented by pharmaceutical companies launching new medicines to exaggerate their efficacy, minimize their harmful side effects, and conceal the fact that these products are often no more effective than those already on the market.  Clinical trials are unnecessarily repeated and overall, health-care and patients suffer.

“They swallowed our story, hook, line and sinker”, wrote the research and development director of the pharmaceutical company Pfizer in an e-mail after having successfully presented the new arthritis drug Celebrex. The medical director of Pfizer admitted they had given the clinical results “a data massage” because that was the only way the new medicine “could look like it was better” than existing ones. In fact, Pfizer and its partner, Pharmacia, presented the results from just the first six months of a yearlong study rather than the whole picture.

There is increasing criticism of distorted claims about new medicines that exaggerate their efficacy and minimize their secondary, often negative effects. This is especially relevant in an environment where few new drugs are significantly more effective than existing ones. Only a small percentage of all new medical products reaching the market (4 out of 97 in 2010) have a real therapeutic value over existing medicines. Most new products are “me too” drugs, which means that they are practically the same as the existing ones.

Biomedical research should strive for the truth uncontaminated by the perception of bias. The reality is that there are many examples of alleged industry bias and duplicity in the manipulation of scientific data, from Vioxx to Tamiflu. What can we do about it? One answer is transparency and openness....