Are Your Medications Safe?
Topic: Junk Science, Medications, FDA
Are Your Medications Safe?
The FDA buries evidence of fraud in medical trials. My students and I dug it up.
Feb. 9 2015
By Charles Seife
Agents of the Food and Drug Administration know better than anyone else just how bad scientific misbehavior can get. Reading the FDA’s inspection files feels almost like watching a highlights reel from a Scientists Gone Wild video. It’s a seemingly endless stream of lurid vignettes-each of which catches a medical researcher in an unguarded moment, succumbing to the temptation to do things he knows he really shouldn’t be doing. Faked X-ray reports. Forged retinal scans. Phony lab tests. Secretly amputated limbs. All done in the name of science when researchers thought that nobody was watching.
That misconduct happens isn’t shocking. What is: When the FDA finds scientific fraud or misconduct, the agency doesn’t notify the public, the medical establishment, or even the scientific community that the results of a medical experiment are not to be trusted. On the contrary. For more than a decade, the FDA has shown a pattern of burying the details of misconduct. As a result, nobody ever finds out which data is bogus, which experiments are tainted, and which drugs might be on the market under false pretenses. The FDA has repeatedly hidden evidence of scientific fraud not just from the public, but also from its most trusted scientific advisers, even as they were deciding whether or not a new drug should be allowed on the market. Even a congressional panel investigating a case of fraud regarding a dangerous drug couldn’t get forthright answers. For an agency devoted to protecting the public from bogus medical science, the FDA seems to be spending an awful lot of effort protecting the perpetrators of bogus science from the public.
Much of my research has to do with follies, foibles, and fraud in science, and I knew that the FDA wasn’t exactly bending over backward to correct the scientific record when its inspectors found problems during clinical trials. So as part of my investigative reporting class at New York University, my students and I set out to find out just how bad the problem was-and how much important information the FDA was keeping under wraps.
The silence is unbroken even when the FDA itself seems shocked at the degree of fraud and misconduct.
We didn’t have to search very hard to find FDA burying evidence of research misconduct. Just look at any document related to an FDA inspection. As part of the new drug application process, or, more rarely, when the agency gets a tipoff of wrongdoing, the FDA sends a bunch of inspectors out to clinical sites to make sure that everything is done by the book. When there are problems, the FDA generates a lot of paperwork-what are called form 483s, Establishment Inspection Reports, and in the worst cases, what are known as Warning Letters. If you manage to get your hands on these documents, you’ll see that, most of the time, key portions are redacted: information that describes what drug the researcher was studying, the name of the study, and precisely how the misconduct affected the quality of the data are all blacked out. These redactions make it all but impossible to figure out which study is tainted. My students and I looked at FDA documents relating to roughly 600 clinical trials in which one of the researchers running the trial failed an FDA inspection. In only roughly 100 cases were we able to figure out which study, which drug, and which pharmaceutical company were involved. (We cracked a bunch of the redactions by cross-referencing the documents with clinical trials data, checking various other databases, and using carefully crafted Google searches.) For the other 500, the FDA was successfully able to shield the drugmaker (and the study sponsor) from public exposure.
It’s not just the public that’s in the dark. It’s researchers, too. And your doctor. As I describe in the current issue of JAMA Internal Medicine, my students and I were able to track down some 78 scientific publications resulting from a tainted study-a clinical trial in which FDA inspectors found significant problems with the conduct of the trial, up to and including fraud. In only three cases did we find any hint in the peer-reviewed literature of problems found by the FDA inspection. The other publications were not retracted, corrected, or highlighted in any way. In other words, the FDA knows about dozens of scientific papers floating about whose data are questionable-and has said nothing, leaving physicians and medical researchers completely unaware. The silence is unbroken even when the FDA itself seems shocked at the degree of fraud and misconduct in a clinical trial.
Such was the case with the so-called RECORD 4 study. RECORD 4 was one of four large clinical trials that involved thousands of patients who were recruited at scores of clinical sites in more than a dozen countries around the world. The trial was used as evidence that a new anti-blood-clotting agent, rivaroxaban, was safe and effective. The FDA inspected or had access to external audits of 16 of the RECORD 4 sites. The trial was a fiasco. At Dr. Craig Loucks’ site in Colorado, the FDA found falsified data. At Dr. Ricardo Esquivel’s site in Mexico, there was “systematic discarding of medical records” that made it impossible to tell whether the study drug was given to the patients. At half of the sites that drew FDA scrutiny-eight out of 16-there was misconduct, fraud, fishy behavior, or other practices so objectionable that the data had to be thrown out. The problems were so bad and so widespread that, contrary to its usual practice, the FDA declared the entire study to be “unreliable.” Yet if you look in the medical journals, the results from RECORD 4 sit quietly in The Lancetwithout any hint in the literature about falsification, misconduct, or chaos behind the scenes. This means that physicians around the world are basing life-and-death medical decisions on a study that the FDA knows is simply not credible.
It’s not just one study, either. The FDA found major problems with sites involved in the other three clinical trials that were used to demonstrate rivaroxaban’s safety and effectiveness.RECORD 2, for example, was nearly as awful as RECORD 4: Four out of 10 sites that the FDA inspected showed evidence of misconduct, or other issues grave enough to render the site’s data worthless-including clear evidence of data falsification at one site. In aggregate, these problems raise serious doubts about the quality of all four key rivaroxaban studies-and, by extension, doubts about how seriously we should take the claim that rivaroxaban is safe and effective. The FDA is keeping mum, even as wrongful-death lawsuits begin to multiply.
Read and see the graphics.