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Beware of researchers with conflicts of interest

Written by Diane Archer

When reading about health care, it’s sometimes hard to know who’s telling the truth and who’s burying it. That’s why I try to base all JustCare posts on findings from independent researchers, information from consumer organizations and government agencies and other generally trustworthy sources. But, when things get technical, even seasoned reporters at the New York Times fail to beware of researchers with conflicts of interest and bury the lede.

Josh Freeman writes on Medicine and Social Justice that Denise Grady at the New York Times promotes a Novartis-funded study published in the New England Journal of Medicine on the effect of canakinumab (Ilaris) on heart attack survivors. The findings, he says, and cardiologist Michael Gilson, M.D., agrees, are not surprising and unremarkable–fewer heart attacks and strokes for patients taking the drug. But, overall, the people taking the drug died at the same rate as the people not taking the drug because the drug “decreases the body’s immune response,” leading to sometimes lethal infections.

Freeman and Gilson’s conclusion: The drug offers no clinical advance. For $200,000 a year–the cost of the drug–fewer people die of heart attack and stroke but, because of the drug’s side effects, they have the same likelihood of dying as people who don’t take the drug. Moreover, an unknown number of people who take the drug do not die from it but suffer significantly from the infections caused by the drug, including tuberculosis, sepsis, pneumonia and cellulitis.

In short, contrary to the New York Times article, this drug is “no major milestone.” It costs a fortune, does not decrease people’s risk of death, and it increases their risk of serious infections. In the second half of her NYT article, Grady does cover these issues, but the article headline, “Drug Aimed at Inflammation May Lower Risk of Heart Disease and Cancer,” and its opening paragraphs are terribly misleading.

N.B. Also beware of doctors with conflicts of interest. Stat News recently published a Pharma puff piece by Dr. Robert Yapundich, who, according to Pro Publica, has received $215,000 from Pharma. If Stat was not aware of the Pro Publica database revealing which doctors take money from Pharma, it should be. If it was aware and still thought the piece offered value for its readers–which is hard to understand–it owes its readers a prominent note about the author’s conflict of interest.

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