Jeremy Laurance: The vested interests that conspire to bury bad news

Share
Related Topics

"Publication bias" is not a phrase widely familiar to people outside the world of academic research. Yet it can explain how a drug launched as a safe and effective treatment can later turn out to be useless, or even deadly.

Pharmaceutical companies invest millions of pounds in drug research and have a powerful commercial interest in publishing positive findings for the medicines they have spent years developing. But they are equally keen to keep quiet about those trials which show no effect.

Medical journals comply in this process of self-censorship because, like the lay media, they are competing for readers and positive results – the more dramatic the better – attract more attention. The result is that over months and years, an impression is created that a drug is more effective, and has fewer side-effects, than is really the case.

This is known as "publication bias", the selection of only positive studies for publication. If all the studies conducted, positive and negative, were reviewed the overall impression might be very different. Publication bias has been blamed for the debacle over the powerful painkiller Vioxx, dramatically withdrawn from the market in 2004, after it was suspected of causing heart attacks. The fatal side-effect had not been picked up despite years of research in thousands of patients. Now it is being blamed for the revelation that two decades after their launch, the new-generation anti-depressants, including Prozac and Seroxat, may be no better than placebos.

Data obtained from the Food and Drug Administration in the United States under freedom of information legislation showed that when all the trials, published and unpublished, submitted at the time the drugs were licensed were analysed, it showed no clinically significant effect. The finding makes the review of the present Nice guidelines on the treatment of depression "all the more urgent", according to Tim Kendall, the head of group responsible for drawing them up.

The present guidelines, issued in 2004, recommend psychological treatments be offered as an alternative to drugs, especially in mild depression, a change from the original guidelines which recommended drugs as the first line of treatment. Revised guidelines are due at the end of the year.

Dr Kendall, a consultant psychiatrist in Sheffield, said: "The doubt the study raises is how much confidence we can have in our current data set, which is much bigger [than in the study] but may not be complete. The drug industry says they are being much more open but I am not convinced we are seeing the data we should see, and we are certainly not seeing what the licensing authorities are seeing."

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

Design Technology Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

Foundation Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Critics of Fiona Woolf say she should step down amid accusations of an establishment cover-up  

Fiona Woolf resignation: As soon as she became the story, she had to leave

James Ashton
 

Letters: Electorate should be given choice on drugs policy

Independent Voices
The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes