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Research Ethics MonthlyISSN 2206-2483

Trust Falls — Are We In a New Phase of Corporate Research? – Scholarly Kitchen (Kent Anderson | August 2017)

Australasian Human Research Ethics Consultancy Services Pty Ltd (AHRECS)

Trust Falls — Are We In a New Phase of Corporate Research? – Scholarly Kitchen (Kent Anderson | August 2017)

 


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The morning the email arrived announcing that Vioxx was being recalled by its manufacturer, I immediately notified the Editor-in-Chief of the New England Journal of Medicine. Over the years and under various editors, NEJM had published important research about Vioxx in early trials. The news now was that an ongoing trial had subsequently shown increased risks of heart attack and stroke with long-term use, and the drug’s maker (Merck) was withdrawing Vioxx from the market. Because NEJM had been involved in publishing studies showing both benefits and risks, many subsequent months were spent as the editors responded to various parties seeking information about Merck’s conduct during the preceding years.

A truly sobering discussion about commercial research, Conflicts of interest, research outputs and public trust.

One surprising aspect of the Vioxx story was that Merck, a company that until then had possessed a largely untarnished reputation for promoting health and well-being, was involved in pushing Vioxx aggressively while suppressing information about known risks. This was the same Merck that has published for decades its trusted and unbiased Merck Manual, and that had developed a sterling reputation for sound science funding and excellent drug and chemical manufacturing. However, the company had also adapted behind the scenes to the new world of drug sales and research promotion — aggressive marketing and information management, as the euphemisms might go. According to one policymaker writing shortly after the recall, Merck:
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. . . trained its representatives to identify speakers for educational events who were “opinion leaders” who could provide “favorable” views of the company’s products to other doctors. Underlining the promotional nature of these events, Merck instructed its sales representatives to track whether the physicians who attended them subsequently prescribed more Merck drugs. . . . it would be a mistake to restrict the lessons learned to a single company. The testimony we heard indicated that Merck’s marketing practices may be less aggressive and more ethical than those of many of its competitors.
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