MICHAEL NOONAN

Drug research: What can we really believe?

Posted Feb. 11, 2016, at 1:10 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 12, 2016, at 8:55 a.m.

You can’t watch television for very long without seeing an ad for a new prescription drug. The voiceover talks glowingly about the benefits, while we are shown images of happy people swallowing the latest remedy. Often they add the phrase “clinical studies show Drug X to be effective.”

But there have been questions about the validity of the research studies themselves from several very high-level sources. Dr. Marcia Angell is a member of the faculty of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School and served on the editorial board of the New England Journal of Medicine for 20 years, including a period as editor-in-chief. In her 2009 New York Times article titled “ Drug companies and doctors, a story of corruption,” she details some of the problems with our current system of research.

She especially addresses how money has influenced the research process, to the extent that she writes, “It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines. I take no pleasure in this conclusion, which I reached slowly and reluctantly over my two decades as an editor of The New England Journal of Medicine.”

Drug industry money has affected the whole system. For example, about two-thirds of academic medical centers have a financial interest in drug companies that hire them to research their products.

More than 60 percent of medical school department chairs received personal income from drug companies, ranging from speaking fees to serving on the board of directors to testing a drug from a company they started.

According to Dr. Angell, the medical faculty who actually are doing the research are no longer unbiased but are, basically, “hired hands” for the drug company. Studies are manipulated to get the results the manufacturer wants.

Drug companies seek out and retain “key opinion leaders” to influence their students and field doctors; they often are richly rewarded for promoting or recommending certain drugs. Even expert panels are not exempt; in 2004, after the National Cholesterol Education Program called for sharply lowering the desired levels of “bad” cholesterol, it was revealed that eight of nine members of the panel writing the recommendations had financial ties to the makers of cholesterol-lowering drugs. The panel generating the more recent 2013 guidelines was somewhat better, with “only” eight of the 15 members having ties to the drug manufacturer, including the chairman and one of the co-chairs.

Even the government is not exempt. Many members of the standing committees of experts who advise the FDA on drug approvals also have financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry.

Like Dr. Angell, I am very skeptical about the claims made about medications, especially the newer ones. The whole process has been so influenced by big money, from influencing research to expert panels to government agencies, that it is difficult to know what to believe. And the idea that there is “a pill for every ill” is promoted so heavily it is easy to forget there are alternatives.

As a wellness provider, my experience is that there is no drug or surgery that will ever prove to be as beneficial as a healthy lifestyle. The healthier we live, the less likely we will need these drug treatments at all. One study showed a healthy lifestyle was associated with a 62 percent reduction in stroke. Other diseases, even cancer, are primarily lifestyle diseases, being rare in native cultures.

And when problems do develop, such as high blood pressure or sugar problems, they can often be handled with natural care, instead of relying on drugs. Wellness lifestyle and wellness-based care is supported by research, none of which was sponsored by the drug companies.

Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, chiropractic acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town. He can be reached at noonanchiropractic@gmail.com.

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