Seattle Researchers Claim They Were Pressured

Five scientists have accused some special interests, including companies and medical lobby groups, of trying to disrupt the flow of public health data for commercial or ideological ends. The critique, which appears today in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), examines several cases, including allegations that a pharmaceutical company--later identified in the press as Pfizer Inc.--demanded prepublication data and tried to learn where a paper raising questions about a Pfizer heart medicine had been submitted for publication. Pfizer denies that it interfered with the controversial report, which was published in 1995.

The charges appeared in an NEJM guest editorial signed by Gilbert Omenn, dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Washington, his UW colleagues Richard Deyo and Bruce Psaty, and two Seattle clinicians--Gregory Simon and Edward Wagner. The authors describe what they call "vituperative" attacks on UW-based research. They wrote that such incidents reveal "the intimidation of investigators and funding agencies by powerful constituencies." And they warn that such tactics "may inhibit important research on health risks and rational approaches to cost-effective health care."

The case studies focus on attempts to block federal guidelines for spinal surgery, discredit a paper on the causes of "multiple chemical sensitivity," and intimidate the author of a study showing that patients who take short-acting calcium-channel blockers have a greater risk of heart attack. In each instance, the authors claim, special interests sought to interfere with the dissemination of information.

For example, Psaty, leader of the heart-attack study, says that he was "harassed" by one of the drug manufacturers (which he confirmed was Pfizer) after he presented data at a scientific meeting questioning the safety of short-acting calcium-channel blockers. Psaty claims that the company demanded that he turn over huge quantities of detailed data from his files--even before his paper was published. After 2 months of negotiations, he says, the company relented. Psaty also says a company employee repeatedly tried to discover where he was planning to publish his report, noting that "it appeared ... that opponents were trying to interfere with the publication of the study." Pfizer spokesperson Brian McGlynn says it is "absolutely not true" that the company interfered in any way with the publication of Psaty's research. "We took actions ... to gather information on some really alarming data on our medicines," he says--data that ought to have been shared with the company in the first place.

The NEJM authors conclude with an appeal to universities and research sponsors, asking them to make a "prompt and unambiguous" defense of scientists who come under attack from special interests.