MRI Drug Debate Sparks Libel Suit Against Scientist

In a joint report, The Sunday Times and ProPublica, an American investigative journalism enterprise, yesterday detailed a libel lawsuit against Henrik Thomsen, a Danish clinician who is among those that alerted patients and regulators to potential risks of a drug called Omniscan that is administered to people receiving MRIs in order to improve the images. ProPublica has recently published a series of stories on concerns about the drug, which is made by GE Healthcare. The new article details how the company is suing Thomsen for libel in the United Kingdom based on a presentation he made at a scientific meeting in Oxford in 2007 and an article discussing the drug that appeared under his name, although Thomsen says it was written by a journalist. "I believe that the lawsuit is an attempt to silence me," Thomsen told the publications.

The lawsuit against Thomsen comes at a time when there is fierce debate over Britain's libel laws, which are generally regarded to favor plaintiffs much more than defendants. Earlier this month, the advocacy group Sense About Science launched an effort to reform those laws, arguing that they were being used to stifle scientific discourse on controversial topics, usually ones of medical interest. Among the cases cited in the reform effort are the British Chiropractic Association's suit against science writer Simon Singh and a libel lawsuit against cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst by the manufacturer of a medical device that he had expressed concerns about a trial of.

In an earlier report on 10 December, the The Times noted how Britain's libel laws were also influencing the decisions of scientific journals, quoting British Medical Journal Editor Fiona Godlee:

Dr Godlee said that concerns about effects of libel on science were not confined to such cases, but also affected day-to-day decisions by the medical journals that publish peer-reviewed scientific research.

She revealed that one of the BMJ’s satellite journals, Archives of Disease in Childhood, had recently turned down, on legal advice, a series of case reports describing clinical signs associated with child abuse, which would have been useful to GPs and other doctors working in child protection. The paper was eventually published in an American journal that is less likely to be seen by British doctors.

“The editor was keen to publish, but the legal advice was that there was a possibility that cases might be identifiable and thus a risk of libel,” Dr Godlee said. “These cases were all from the UK, and the information should have been readily available to doctors in the UK.”