The Foxes in Pharma's Henhouses

One more way profits trump science in drug trials

The author of the highly literate and widely lauded 2003 book, "Better than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream," Carl Elliot is well positioned to comment on pharma's ceaseless search for new maladies--which can, of course, then be treated profitably. In today's Slate, Elliot, who is a professor at the University of Minnesota's Center for Bioethics, has co-authored a terrific piece on the mechanics and dangers of allowing researchers conducting clinical drug trials to hire their own for-profit overseers.

Drug companies spend $14 billion a year testing new drugs. The products need to be tested for safety on healthy people, and the healthy people most willing to ingest them are usually those with plenty of time and little money. Nearly 10 years ago, the Wall Street Journal reported that Eli Lilly and Company was recruiting homeless alcoholics to take part in drug trials in Indianapolis. In 2003, a previously healthy college student named Traci Johnson committed suicide in Lilly labs after being paid to take a new version of an antidepressant. Now Bloomberg is reporting that three years ago, Garry Polsgrove, a homeless Vietnam veteran, checked into the Fabre Research Clinic, a for-profit testing center in Houston. Polsgrove was in good health when he entered the study and started taking clozapine, an antipsychotic drug, in order to get some cash and a place to sleep. Twenty-two days later he was dead of myocarditis.

The piece adds one more layer to the growing body of evidence that the pharmaceutical regulatory system in the United States is in desperate need of a wholesale overhaul.

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