Thursday, June 9, 2011

Follow-up on oxytocin and Big Pharma

I really didn't intend to spend so much time/space exploring the netherworld of the pharmaceutical industry, and had planned to move on to matters of beauty, art and books. The subject keeps turning up, however, so I wanted to post a brief follow-up to two items in my "drug series."

1) It turns out that oxytocin is (over)used not just in humans but in .... fruit and vegetable plants. I had mentioned in a previous post the problem of exploding watermelons in China, victims of farmers eager to hasten their ripening for delivery (ahem), but most reports I've seen of oxytocin use in vegetables seem to concern India. See, for example, this article in The India Times. It's hard to square the drug's ready availability to farmers with repeated shortages for human patients, but this just speaks to the complexity of cultural and economic pressures on supply-and-demand relationships for generic drugs.

2) A new article, "Flacking for Big Pharma," has just appeared at The American Scholar. It was written by Harriet Washington, author of the award-winning Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, and details the corporate takeover of medical journals (and, thus, most of the information that guides physicians in treating their patients). It is well worth reading, especially if you're wondering why the medical establishment seems prone to pirouetting on their recommendations every few years. Anyone remember the big turnaround on HRT (hormone replacement therapy)?  First Premarin and Prempro were hailed for reducing not only the symptoms of menopause but the risk for stroke, heart attack, breast cancer, and cardiovascular disease. A number of years later, further studies not tied financially to the pharmaceutical industry made it abundantly clear that these hormones actually elevated the risks for stroke, heart attack, breast cancer, and cardiovascular disease—the very diseases they had been touted to prevent. 

I'll excerpt a disturbing little tidbit to whet your appetite:
In 2003... Elsevier, the Dutch publisher of both The Lancet and Gray’s Anatomy [the text, not the television show], sullied its pristine reputation by publishing an entire sham medical journal devoted solely to promoting Merck products. Elsevier publishes 2,000 scientific journals and 20,000 book-length works, but its Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine, which looks just like a medical journal, and was described as such, was not a peer-reviewed medical journal but rather a collection of reprinted articles that Merck paid Elsevier to publish. At least some of the articles were ghostwritten, and all lavished unalloyed praise on Merck drugs, such as its troubled painkiller Vioxx. There was no disclosure of Merck’s sponsorship. Librarian and analyst Jonathan Rochkind found five similar mock journals, also paid for by Merck and touted as genuine. The ersatz journals are still being printed and circulated, according to Rochkind, and 50 more Elsevier journals appear to be Big Pharma advertisements passed off as medical publications. Rochkind’s forensic librarianship has exposed the all-but-inaccessible queen of medical publishing as a high-priced call girl.
Caveat lector.

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