Medication Marketplace

Closeup of red and blue prescription capsules

Depression is a growth industry now. Prozac and its cousins Paxil and Zoloft are now three of the top six largest selling prescription drugs. Considering that these pills are really only slightly more effective than their predecessors – that is, only a little more effective than placebo – their acceptance by both healthcare professionals and the public has been amazing. New reports suggest it’s not just amazing, it’s corruption.

Ever since Arrowsmith there’s been a question about whether for-profit pharmaceutical manufacturers can sponsor truly objective scientific research. Dr. Martin Keller of Brown University has been a respected researcher into depression for decades. He has many, many publications and grants to his credit, some of which have been the foundation for much of our current knowledge about the course, causes, and treatment of this disease. Now the Boston Globe reports that Dr. Keller has been getting rich on payments from some of the drug companies whose products he’s been researching. In 1998 alone, Dr. Keller pulled in $556,000 in consulting fees from these companies. That’s not grants to fund research, or reimbursement for expenses, or even lavish little conferences in the Caribbean – that’s direct cash money into his pocket.

In addition, the Globe reports that Dr. Keller did not disclose the extent of his relationships to these companies to the medical journals that published his findings or to the professional associations that sponsored the conferences where he presented his findings.

There’s no evidence yet that Dr. Keller cooked his data or slanted his conclusions because of these payments. But we know that kind of thing happens often enough in science just because researchers have an emotional investment in reaching a certain conclusion. Dr. Keller’s whole body of work, much of it probably quite good, is now open to question because of these revelations.

Pharmaceutical manufacturers are constantly telling us that the high prices we pay for prescription medicines go to help them fund research into new drugs. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’d be willing to pay a lower price and a higher tax, and let the government fund research. Profits and healthcare are a dangerous combination.

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