Rx INDUSTRY: ’60 Minutes’ Uncovers Synthroid Controversy
"It wasn't that long ago that the pharmaceutical industry surpassed the federal government as the single biggest source of funding for health care research," CBS correspondent Leslie Stahl reported on yesterday's "60 Minutes." At face value, the funding switch appears to be another case of "big business replacing big government," Stahl noted. But the relationships between researchers and drug companies are turning out to be more complex than previously thought. In many cases, researchers receiving funding from a pharmaceutical company are asked to sign secrecy agreements -- giving the company "veto over what is made public and what is not." In the case of thyroid drug Synthroid, manufactured by Noll Pharmaceuticals, the company commissioned UC-San Francisco scientist Betty Dong to conduct research proving that Synthroid performed better than generic copies of the drug. But when the results came in showing that Synthroid and the generics yielded the same effects, the drug company -- which stood to lose a great deal of money -- tried to discredit the study and accused Dong of professional misconduct. Dong revealed, "[The drug company] accused me of falsifying data. They sent private investigators after me to investigate my personal and professional life." Despite the "attacks," Dong sent the study to The Journal of the American Medical Association, which independently reviewed her findings and set up for publication of the research -- until Noll Pharmaceuticals threatened to sue, invoking the secrecy clause in Dong's contract.
Noting that, "we're looking at something pretty threatening," JAMA's Dr. Drummond Rennie explained that Dr. Dong's experience is really part of a larger problem -- that scientists are being silenced and research findings suppressed as "business ethics invade laboratories and the universities that own them." Stahl noted that ever since a 1980 federal law allowing universities to make money from research was enacted, it has become almost unheard of for unfavorable research on drug companies' products to be published. While "60 Minutes" was unable to find any evidence of patients being harmed due to suppressed research, Stahl did find cases in which patients came close. Stahl concluded by noting that, while Dong finally published her study on Synthroid seven years after its completion, Noll Pharmaceuticals denies any efforts to suppress her work. However, the company has offered to pay $135 million to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by consumers on the complaint that they were overcharged (Stahl, CBS's "60 Minutes," 12/19).