How Drug Research is Distorted

by Steve Gillman - Date: 2007-06-08 - Word Count: 479 Share This!

Do you think that the drug research done by pharmaceutical companies is honest? Think again. The Guardian newspaper recently reported on many systematic reviews which demonstrate that pharmaceutical industry studies show positive results far more often than those funded by independent sources. Coincidence? They just happen to get more of the results that they want? Not Likely.

It is also unlikely that drug companies directly tamper with clinical drug trials in any criminal way. They aren't likely to change the reported results afterwards either. This kind of dishonesty is probably very rare in drug research, because it isn't necessary. There are more subtle ways to get the results you want.

First, a company can design a study in a biased way. For example, even if a study is theoretically double-blind, a company could create procedures which let doctors administering a new pharmaceutical know who is getting it, versus who is getting a placebo. The expectation of doctors that a patients condition will improve has been shown to result in more reported improvement. This obviously could bias the results. This is a fairly crude manipulation, but there are certainly other ways to design a study to increase the chance of positive results.

By far, the most common way to manipulate the results of drug research, is to selectively report those results. Recent investigations show that this is common. Negative data is often hidden or thrown out.

To understand why this matters, consider a simple example. A new drug is given to ten groups of people who share a given disease or condition. On average, it appears to help the people in five of the groups , but the subjects in the other five groups have no improvement or get worse. This is common, since people get better or worse for many reasons, and this is why many trials are necessary to be statistically significant.

Now suppose, in this case, the company decided that only the five trials with positive results are important enough to report, and they quietly get rid of the data from the other five. Now, a drug that has no real benefit appears to have helped in every research trial - every one that the rest of the world hears about anyhow. This is bad science, of course, and unfortunately is just one of the ways that pharmaceutical companies play with data.

By the way, scientists have been recommending a simple and inexpensive solution to this problem for decades: a compulsory international trials register. In order to use the results of any drug research trials to get a new pharmaceutical approved, a company would have to register the trial before it begins. In this way trials that don't give the result wanted can't just disappear.

Not surprisingly, the drug companies are against this simple idea. It doesn't allow them as much control over the "truth." As a result, we can expect dishonest drug research to continue.

Related Tags: pharmaceuticals, drug research, drug trials

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