Ghostbusting in Paxil Birth Defect Litigation
by Evelyn Pringle
A month before the first Paxil birth defect trial against GlaxoSmithKline was set to begin, the Associated Press ran the headline, “Glaxo Used Ghostwriting Program to Promote Paxil,” in reporting on a program called “CASPPER,” which allowed doctors to “take credit for medical journal articles mainly written by company consultants.”
“Drug companies frequently hire outside firms to draft a manuscript touting a company’s drug, retain a physician to sign off as the author and then find a publisher to unwittingly publish the work,” the Associated Press said on August 19, 2009. “Drug company salespeople often present medical journal articles to physicians as independent proof that their drugs are safe and effective.”
Between 2000 and 2002, articles from the CASPPER program appeared in five medical journals. On August 21, 2009, Jim Edwards on BNET, described the CASSPER ghostwriting brochure. The document shows that the intent of CASSPER was to flood the market with ghostwritten information, he said. It stated: “Paxil Product Management has budgeted for 50 articles for 2000.”
The trial in Kilker v Glaxo ended on October 13, 2009, with a jury in Philadelphia finding that Glaxo “negligently failed to warn” the doctor treating Lyam Kilker’s mother about Paxil’s risks and the drug was a “factual cause” of Lyam’s heart defects. The family was award $2.5 million.
The world-renowned neuropsychopharmacologist from the UK, Dr David Healy, testified as an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the Kilker trial.
While testifying, Healy explained the process of ghostwriting to the jury. He said ghostwriting probably began seriously in the 1980s. “It’s where an article appears under the name of usually a fairly distinguished person in the field,” he testified.
But it involves more than just the true author being concealed, he told the jury. “It’s a process where the ghostwriters work for companies who are very good at getting articles into the best journals in the field, like the New England Journal of Medicine, and recruiting some of the best known names in the field to be the apparent authors of the articles.”
“They may come from one of the big named universities like Princeton or whoever, but the actual fact the person who appears to be the author isn’t the true author,” he said. “If you were to read the article, you often don’t get any hints of who the true author of the article actually was.”
Ghostwriting impacts doctors in the real world trying to make decisions on whether to prescribe a drug in several ways, Healy told the jury. For instance, he said, if he was doing his own writing, he “would write an article on the drug, warts and all.”
“But if the article has been written by a ghostwriter working for one of the pharmaceutical companies,” he said, “the chances are the warts are somehow going to vanish.”
“The article will talk about the good aspects of the drug and will leave out the risky issues which are probably the most important things for the practicing doctor to know,” he explained.
If the ghost author comes from an extremely distinguished university, doctors reading the article will think it has to be right, he said. “The simple fact that the article is going to be apparently written by this big named person and appears in an extremely good journal means that most average doctors will think this has to be true,” he told the jury.
It’s not just the case of the doctor who reads the article being deceived, he said. “It’s the fact that the credibility of the institution is and the name is being used to sell the drug, as well.“
Healy came face-to-face with ghostwriting when one of the drug companies offered to ghostwrite his articles, he said. Since then, he has researched the ghostwriting process to assess how common it is.
The assessment found that “at least half, maybe more, of the articles that appear in major journals under the names of the best known people in the field, are ghostwritten when they have to do with pharmaceutical drugs,” he told the jury.
“If they have to do with the drugs that are being sold at the moment, the ones that are fashionable at the moment, then these articles are highly likely to be ghostwritten even when they appear in the very best journals,” Healy said.
Ghostwriting Up Close
While testifying, Healy told the jury that he was familiar with companies that Glaxo hired to ghostwrite literature and put other doctors’ names on it. “I think the leading firm in the field was one called STI,” he said. “This stands for Scientific Therapeutics Information.”
The jury was shown a July 28, 2003, document sent to the Glaxo product manager for Paxil, by Sally Laden, working for STI, which stated: “Thank you for offering me the chance to work with you to write two review articles.”
“This letter summarizes my fees for this project,” Laden wrote. “The safety paper is priced higher because of a greater number of named authors and the anticipated additional work involved in assessing the CR data in progress.”
For the development of the manuscript, and up to five drafts, the price quoted was $12,000. One of the topics for a manuscript was on the safety of antidepressants in breast-feeding.
“The first draft will be the first run through the material,” Healy told the jury. “She will have put the article together laying out the issues, laying out the references, structuring the paper up in the way that the journal she actually expects that this paper is going to go to will want the article structured.”
Draft 2 goes back to Glaxo again and the author, whoever is actually going to put their name on the paper. Then draft 3 goes back to Glaxo and the author for sign-off, and then there will be a final version that goes to the journal, Healy explained. Then draft 5 is revisions from journal reviewers, he said.
He noted that Laden said the safety paper is more expensive because there was going to be more authors. “I should emphasize that more authors here does not mean more authors writing the paper,” Healy told the jury. “It means more names appearing on the authorship line.”
“She has to recruit people and the people whose names are on the authorship line get paid for being authors,” he explained.
Sally Laden’s “name has appeared on a range of different articles that have been produced for GlaxoSmithKline, not just on the issue of giving drugs to women of childbearing years but across the board,” Healy said.
During Healy’s testimony, the family’s lead attorney from Houston, Sean Tracey, introduced the actual manuscript by STI. “This is an article that is going to go to a journal,” Healy said. “It has been authored by Ms. Laden, contrary to what appears there.”
The names Zachary Stowe and Jeffrey Newport appeared on the authorship line. Healy noted that Draft 4 stated: “Final article cover page to be removed.”
“The cover page will be removed,” he explained, “because the journal will treat the article quite differently if they think that the true author is not on the authorship line.”
Healy said the paper was an example of ghostwriting. “It is going to go to a journal called Psychopharmacology Bulletin,” he testified. “And in this particular issue of the journal where this paper later comes out, every paper in that issue of the journal has to do with Paxil.”
The jury was then shown the actual article that was published and it was the exact same article but without Laden’s name on it.
Healy testified that Stowe runs the women’s mental health program at Emory University and publishes on SSRIs and women’s health issues, with publications favorable to Paxil, and also gives seminars and talks for other doctors which outline “how it can be a good thing to treat women of childbearing years with Paxil.”
He was not allowed to tell the jury how much Glaxo had paid Stowe over the last year or two, which was revealed by an investigation led by Iowa Senator, Charles Grassley, as the ranking Republican on the US Senate Finance Committee. The amount Stowe got paid “is not public knowledge where you can show me a document that says it,” the judge said.
However, Stowe’s Glaxo earnings are most certainly public knowledge. A google search in December 2009, with the following three key words in quotes, “Stowe” “GSK” “paid,” brought up 15,800 hits.
On June 10, 2009, in reference to Stowe, the Wall Street Journal reported, “Emory University has disciplined a prominent psychiatrist who was being paid by an antidepressant maker at the same time he was conducting federal research about the use of such drugs in pregnant women.”
The National Institute of Mental Health said “it is reviewing Stowe’s activities, prompted by a letter from a U.S. Senate committee that said Stowe received $253,700 in 2007 and 2008 for “essentially promotional talks” for the drug maker GlaxoSmithKline,” the June 11, 2009 Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
The charts with dates for Stowe’s promotional talks reveal that many times he gave two talks for Glaxo on the same date and made five grand per day, in addition to payment for all traveling expenses. On one date, he billed $96 for meals alone.
For ready reference, the list of academics in the field of psychiatry identified by Grassley’s investigation thus far, as not fully disclosing money from drug companies, includes Joseph Biederman, Thomas Spencer and Timothy Wilens at Harvard, Charles Nemeroff and Zackery Stowe from Emory; Melissa DelBello at the University of Cincinnati; Alan Schatzberg, president of the American Psychiatric Association, from Stanford; Martin Keller at Brown University; Karen Wagner and A John Rush from the University of Texas; and Fred Goodwin, the former host of the radio show, “Infinite Minds,” broadcast for years by National Pubic Radio, before it was thrown off the air.
The supplement to the Spring 2003, “Psychopharmacology Bulletin,” found online, sure enough shows the ghostwritten paper, “Clinical Management of Perinatal Depression: Focus on Paroxetine,” with the names Stowe and Newport, along with papers by Martin Kelly, Charles Nemeroff, Alan Schatzberg, Karen Wagner, and Kim Yonkers, for a total of fourteen Paxil papers altogether.
Under “Disclosure,” the article ghostwritten by Laden stated: “This work was supported by an unrestricted educational grant from GlaxoSmithKline. Doctor Stowe serves as scientific advisor for and receives research grants from Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline. He also receives grant support from Wyeth.”
The disclosure that the work was supported with a grant from Glaxo would not tell a doctor reading the paper that it was actually written by somebody else, Healy said.
While testifying, Healy explained that an “unrestricted educational grant, if I were to receive one, it would assume that I am saying things that are relatively favorable to the pharmaceutical company who has given me the educational grant.”
“If I am saying things hostile to the drug,” he said, “I will not get an unrestricted educational grant, although the word “unrestricted” suggests that I should.”
Stowe’s undisclosed income above was from Glaxo alone. In August 2007, he was listed as an author on a study titled, “Atypical Antipsychotic Administration During Late Pregnancy,” in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
According to the disclosure section, Stowe has received research support from Glaxo, Pfizer, and Wyeth, has served on advisory boards for Glaxo, Wyeth, and Bristol-Myers Squibb, and has served on speaker’s bureaus and/or received honoraria from Glaxo, Lilly, Pfizer, and Wyeth.
The second author on the ghostwritten paper, Jeffrey Newport, is the associate director of Emory’s Women’s Program. Newport was also an author on the “Atypical Antipsychotic” study. He has received research support from Glaxo, Lilly, Janssen, the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression, NIH, and Wyeth, and, he has served on speaker’s bureaus for Glaxo, AstraZeneca, Lilly, Pfizer, and Wyeth, according to the disclosures.
The next person the jury heard about was Charles Nemeroff. He was also an author on the atypical study. Nemeroff was the Chief of Psychiatry at Emory, until he lost the position last year, Healy told the jury. “He’s possibly best known or was the best known psychiatrist in the United States.”
“He influenced an awful lot of heads of departments, professors of psychiatry, general people within the field of academic mental health, and through them and an awful lot of prescribing doctors here in the U.S. And, indeed, perhaps worldwide,” Healy testified.
A link to “Articles” on the Emory website in mid-2009, brought up roughly 90 studies and papers that include the co-author Nemeroff.
Healy said he believed Nemeroff was one of the founding members of the Paxil advisory board and he participated in continuing medical education seminars with talks on Paxil.
Nemeroff would have been “the key person in producing the kinds of talks with slides that would have been held for large audiences of doctors, and then those slides and talks would have been distributed out to different doctors in the field who hadn’t been at the major meetings as he gave his talk,” Healy told the jury.
During his testimony, Tracey showed Healy a document from a continuing medical education seminar titled, “Fertility, Mood and Motherhood,” and Healy said the material for the seminar was prepared by Glaxo for Nemeroff. It was again supported by unrestricted educational grant from Glaxo and Nemeroff “was reimbursed for his role in this,” Healy pointed out.
Healy was also not allowed to testify about Nemeroff’s fall from grace at Emory, how much he was paid by Glaxo, or his failure to disclose over a million dollars from drug companies.
Dr Bernard Carroll, a past chairman of the department of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center, summarized the Nemeroff saga well on the Healthcare Renewal website on November 3, 2008, in writing: “The fallout to date includes his severance from several NIH-funded projects at Emory University School of Medicine, a freeze of NIH funding for a major center grant, and his stepping down from Emory’s chair of psychiatry while an internal investigation proceeds.”
During her cross examination of Healy, Glaxo’s lead attorney, Chilton Varner, presented an exhibit showing a continuing medical education presentation given by Nemeroff.
“Can you see that in this continuing medical education program Doctor Nemeroff says that paroxetine, sertraline, fluvoxamine, (are) not associated with increased risk of teratogenicity or other complications?” she asked Healy.
“Yes, I do,” he replied.
In small print, the disclosure for the presentation showed Nemeroff had received research grants and participated in the speakers bureau and consulted for Glaxo, Eli Lilly, Solvay and Pfizer.
During re-direct, Tracey asked Healy to tell the jury what the actual results of the study that Nemeroff was discussing in the presentation showed, and specifically when Paxil was looked at alone. The results “showed that there was a 1.8-fold increase in the odds ratio of a birth defects to the women who have been taking Paxil during pregnancy,” Healy testified.
“Overall, for this group of drugs there was an increase in risk,” he said, “but specifically for Paxil the risk was greatly increased.”
“And beyond that,” Healy stated, “what isn’t included here in the conclusions, overall there was a — on this group of drugs, there was a doubling of the rate of miscarriages on the drug compared with the rate of miscarriage for the women who are being compared who weren’t on the drug.”
“There was also an increased rate of women going on to voluntarily abortions on the drug,” he added.
One of the lead authors on the study was Gideon Koren. “Doctor, without giving any details,” Tracey asked Healy, “do you know whether Doctor Koren has ties to the pharmaceutical industry?”
“I know he has,” Healy said.
During his opening statement, Tracey told the jury that 1998 was a big year for Paxil because a study came out by a doctor named Gideon Koren, and a researcher named Kulin, that looked at Paxil and two other SSRIs.
The study compared women who took SSRIs, to women who didn’t take any SSRIs, and the number of birth defects in the two groups was the same. “So Doctor Koren concluded that SSRIs appear to be safe,” Tracey said.
“Within, literally within 24 hours,” he told the jury, “GSK’s marketing machine cranked up and they faxed this information to their entire sales force.”
And the sales force took this information and began to use it to sell to women, he noted. “What they didn’t tell anybody was this,” Tracey said. “That when you separated Paxil out from the other SSRIs, you saw that Paxil was causing birth defects, that there was an increased risk of birth defects in this study in these women when you looked at Paxil by itself.”
“That was not in the paper,” he said. “That information was not found out until two years ago.”
While testifying, Healy was barred from telling the jury about Koren’s involvement in one the biggest academic research scandals in history a few years back when he sent vicious anonymous letters to discredit fellow researchers and denied doing so until DNA evidence from postage stamps proved he was lying years later. In September 2003, the Canadian Association of University Teachers reported on the disciplining of Koren in the CAUT Bulletin as follows:
“The Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons has formally reprimanded University of Toronto professor of medicine Dr. Gideon Koren. He had written anonymous harassing letters about Dr. Nancy Olivieri and three colleagues during Olivieri’s dispute with the Hospital for Sick Children, the University of Toronto and Apotex Inc. He then had lied repeatedly to conceal his responsibility. The college also cited him for additional misconduct, in research.”
The Teachers Association further explained in the Bulletin: “The college’s finding of research misconduct was in relation to a study on a drug to treat a blood disorder in children that Koren and Olivieri had once collaborated on. Olivieri identified risks that the drug was ineffective and caused liver damage, and voiced her concerns despite legal warnings from its maker, Apotex. Koren differed and, contrary to accepted norms, published an article on the drug using data from other researchers, including Olivieri, without their knowledge or consent.”
“Koren had received hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding from Apotex after the company had terminated the drug trials in its efforts to prevent Olivieri from disclosing risks to patients, as well as the hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding he had received during the trials,” the newsletter reported, citing an journal article by the authors of “The Olivieri Report.”
Apotex marketed a generic version of Paxil, or paroxetine.
The penalty had been jointly proposed to the discipline committee through prior agreement between Koren’s attorney and counsel for the college, the Bulletin noted. In its decision, the committee said it was “deeply troubled by this case” and “seriously considered administering a more severe penalty” than that proposed, as it wished “to express unequivocally its condemnation of Dr. Koren’s misconduct.”
Glaxo Money Still Flowing
In a December 14, 2009 report on Pharmalot, Ed Silverman noted that Glaxo had published a list of fees paid out to US healthcare professionals for speaking and consulting services for the three month period of April 1, 2009 to June 30, 2009. “By its own tally, Glaxo paid $14.6 million to approximately 3,700 US docs and other healthcare professionals,” he reported.
Although Glaxo paid out millions of dollars over the years to the doctors discussed in this article, not one of them was called to testify as an expert in the first birth defect trial.
(The Paxil Birth Defect Litigation Update Series is sponsored by the Houston law firm of Vickery, Waldner and Mallia at http://www.justiceseekers.com )
(Evelyn Pringle is an investigative Journalist and Researcher focused on exposing corruption in government and corporate America)