That original researcher could not foresee the specific harm he contributed to, and it’s hard to blame him as an individual, because he operated in an academic culture where leaving data unpublished was regarded as completely normal. The same culture exists today. The final report on TGN1412 concluded that sharing the results of all first-in-man studies was essential: they should be published, every last one, as a matter of routine. But phase 1 trial results weren’t published then, and they’re still not published now. In 2009, for the first time, a study was published looking specifically at how many of these first-in-man trials get published, and how many remain hidden. They took all such trials approved by one ethics committee over a year. After four years, nine out of ten remained unpublished; after eight years, four out of five were still unpublished.
In medicine, as we shall see time and again, research is not abstract: it relates directly to life, death, suffering and pain. With every one of these unpublished studies we are potentially exposed, quite unnecessarily, to another TGN1412. Even a huge international news story, with horrific images of young men brandishing blackened feet and hands from hospital beds, wasn’t enough to get movement, because the issue of missing data is too complicated to fit in one sentence.
When we don’t share the results of basic research, such as a small first-in-man study, we expose people to unnecessary risks in the future. Was this an extreme case? Is the problem limited to early, experimental, new drugs, in small groups of trial participants?
In the 1980s, U.S. doctors began giving anti-arrhythmic drugs to all patients who’d had a heart attack. This practice made perfect sense on paper: we knew that anti-arrhythmic drugs helped prevent abnormal heart rhythms; we also knew that people who’ve had a heart attack are quite likely to have abnormal heart rhythms; we also knew that often these went unnoticed, undiagnosed and untreated. Giving anti-arrhythmic drugs to everyone who’d had a heart attack was a simple, sensible preventive measure.
Unfortunately, it turned out that we were wrong. This prescribing practice, with the best of intentions, on the best of principles, actually killed people. And because heart attacks are very common, it killed them in very large numbers: well over 100,000 people died unnecessarily before it was realized that the fine balance between benefit and risk was completely different for patients without a proven abnormal heart rhythm.
Could anyone have predicted this? Sadly, yes, they could have. A trial in 1980 tested a new anti-arrhythmic drug, lorcainide, in a small number of men who’d had a heart attack—less than a hundred—to see if it was any use. Nine out of forty-eight men on lorcainide died, compared with one out of forty-seven on placebo. The drug was early in its development cycle, and not long after this study it was dropped for commercial reasons. Because it wasn’t on the market, nobody even thought to publish the trial. The researchers assumed it was an idiosyncrasy of their molecule, and gave it no further thought. If they had published, we would have been much more cautious about trying other anti-arrhythmic drugs on people with heart attacks, and the phenomenal death toll—over 100,000 people in their graves prematurely—might have been stopped sooner. More than a decade later, the researchers finally did publish their results, with a mea culpa, recognizing the harm they had done by not sharing them earlier:
When we carried out our study in 1980, we thought that the increased death rate that occurred in the lorcainide group was an effect of chance. The development of lorcainide was abandoned for commercial reasons, and this study was therefore never published; it is now a good example of ‘publication bias’. The results described here might have provided an early warning of trouble ahead.10