Daily, please don’t drink the corporate Kool-Aid

We can’t afford to let the scientific record be dictated by the private sector

In the late 1950s, a drug known as Thalidomide became a staple of the prenatal diet. Initially hailed as the perfect cure for morning sickness, doctors and obstetricians prescribed it to their pregnant clients at the drop of a hat. At one point, it was pushed on my own pregnant grandmother – an Iraqi immigrant to Israel and only 19 years old. She declined. Within three years’ time, it would be pulled off the market, but not before it had caused thousands of birth defects worldwide. Some have referred to the Thalidomide fad as “one of the biggest medical tragedies of all time.”

There has been much discussion lately of the perks and the pitfalls of corporate sponsorship at McGill, and I relate the above story just to emphasize that horrible things do, in fact, happen when we are not careful about who does our science. The story that ran in the September 8 issue of The Daily on the fiasco surrounding McGill Professor Barbara Sherwin is a case in point. Despite the story’s numerous errata and lack of context, it provides a good window into the authentically baleful effects that corporate money can have on academic research.

For those unfamiliar with the story, I’ll attempt a quick primer: At a conference in the early 1990’s, Sherwin, a psychology professor specializing in hormonal science, met and befriended another medical doctorate named Karen Mittleman. In 1998, Mittleman asked Sherwin to write an article in her precise area of expertise for the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, and Sherwin didn’t hesitate to seize the opportunity. Mittleman, an employee at the Princeton-based medical communications firm DesignWrite, offered some light editorial assistance on the article, which Sherwin accepted. The extent of Mittleman’s involvement later became the subject of intense scrutiny, and, ultimately, it appears to have been fairly minimal. By the time Mittleman contacted Sherwin about collaboration on a second article, things had started to heat up and Sherwin smartly kept her distance.

The problem was this: DesignWrite had made a secret business deal with a drug company called Wyeth. The idea was essentially that, in exchange for cash, DesignWrite would write articles endorsing Wyeth’s new hormone replacement therapy and launder them into respectability by finding medical professionals willing to take credit for them. Sherwin was privy to none of this.
Following revelations by the Women’s Health Initiative in 2002 that Wyeth’s new drug therapy led to a 41 per cent increase in strokes, a 29 per cent increase in heart attacks, a 22 per cent increase in total cardiovascular disease, a 26 per cent increase in breast cancer, and a doubling of rates of blood clots, the company understandably came under some heat.

In the subsequent class action lawsuit brought against Wyeth by 8,400 women who had received the drug therapy, it became evident that the company had commissioned at least forty scientific articles endorsing the drug treatment. This is where Sherwin came under fire. According to McGill’s own investigation into Sherwin’s academic conduct, the paper Mittleman had helped edit did not contain any clear endorsement of Wyeth’s drug treatment. The investigation did reprimand her for not noting Mittleman’s contribution to the article, however slight it may have been. (Sherwin claims that Mittleman declined credit).

Nonetheless, the disaster surrounding Wyeth starkly demonstrates the dangers that private interests pose to academic integrity. DesignWrite was quite obviously successful in distorting the medical discourse on hormone replacement therapy – and at tremendous human cost. This story is not a unique one: several other prematurely marketed drugs are currently falling under legal scrutiny, both for their adverse medical repercussions and for the ghostwriting rackets associated with them.

For these reasons, I was completely baffled by the ambivalent confusion of “The oil patch and the ivory tower: a science student explores her mixed feelings about corporate research” (September 19). It was interesting to find out that McGill is host to a research lab bankrolled by Imperial Oil, but the article came to no substantive conclusions whatsoever. It waffled back and forth, never addressed manifest stories of damage wrought at the hands of corporations, and wrapped up with some noble story of a former student’s wind farm project being set out for display when the lab’s patrons came to visit.

The lab in question (the WOW lab – Winners of Wonderment) may not be doing any direct harm to humans or the environment. But it is clearly the sort of PR project that allows companies like Imperial Oil – which has an atrocious record of environmental degradation – to greenwash its image and continue business as usual.

Can The Daily please decline to buy the myth of corporate social responsibility?

The readers’ advocate is a twice-monthly  column written by Niko Block addressing the performance, relevance, and quality of The Daily. You can reach him at readersadvocate@mcgilldaily.com.