- Many researchers maintain close financial ties to the drug companies that stand to gain from the results of their research.
- Congress passed the Physician Payments Sunshine Act, which, starting in 2013, will compel pharmaceutical firms and medical device manufacturers to reveal most of the money that they are putting into the pockets of physicians.
- Yet as the case study in this article shows, neither scientific institutions nor the scientists themselves have shown a willingness to police conflicts of interest in research.
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When Robert Lindsay chose to become a medical researcher in the early 1970s, he did not do it for the money. His field—the effect of hormones on bone—was a backwater. It was also a perfect opportunity for a young researcher to make his mark and, he hoped, help millions of people who suffered from the bone disease osteoporosis. As the body ages, sometimes bones lose the ability to rebuild themselves fast enough to keep pace with the normal process of deterioration, and the skeleton weakens. Neither Lindsay nor anyone else understood much about why this happened, but there was reason to think that hormones might play a role. Some women develop osteoporosis shortly after menopause, when their hormone levels drop sharply, perhaps upsetting that balance between bone creation and destruction. If so, Lindsay reasoned, replacing the hormones with a pill might halt or even reverse the progress of the disease. From a tiny, underfunded clinic in Glasgow, Scotland, he set up one of the first clinical trials of estrogen replacement therapy for bone loss in postmenopausal women. Lindsay's star was rising.
His next project had big commercial implications and got the attention of the drug industry. Having moved to Helen Hayes Hospital, a rehabilitation center north of New York City, in 1984 he published work that established the minimum effective dosage of an antiosteoporosis estrogen drug called Premarin. Because the findings suggested that fighting osteoporosis was tantamount to encouraging millions of women to use the drug, it made Lindsay an important person in the eyes of the drug's manufacturer, Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories. Indeed, the company gave him a role as an author of its informational video Osteoporosis: A Preventable Tragedy.
This article was originally published with the title Is Drug Research Trustworthy?.