When objective science isn't objective at all
You know what they say about something that sounds too good to be true, right?
Infuse sure sounded too good to be true when it first hit the market, but that didn't stop doctors from believing the hype about the bone growth drug.
And can you blame them? Infuse was practically the answer to their prayers: A drug that could help regrow bone after spinal fusion surgeries with virtually no risk of side effects.
That's how the studies made it sound, anyway -- and not just one or two of them. Eleven studies backed this bone growth drug in a big way.
One study was so unanimously glowing and overwhelmingly positive that at least one reviewer thought it sounded like marketing material from the bone growth drug's maker, Medtronic, rather than objective scientific research.
If only they knew how right they were.
Turns out, Medtronic's marketing team had direct input on the studies. They helped draft, write, and edit studies, according to an investigation now under way in the U.S. Senate.
Ironically, they allegedly even helped draft a response to the reviewers who thought the studies sounded too much like marketing material.
The company also funded the research itself, of course. That's not unusual -- it happens all the time, and is usually (but not always) disclosed in the conflicts section of the study.
But in this case, the cash relationship may have gone beyond writing a check to cover the cost of the research. Way beyond it -- because according to the Senate investigation, Medtronic paid the 13 main doctors who "led" the research a total of $210 million over 15 years in consulting fees and other work supposedly unrelated to their Infuse research.
Maybe the work itself was unrelated, assuming it was actual work. But it certainly has the feel of a "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" arrangement -- especially since the glowing Infuse studies helped the drug become an $800-million-a-year product.
When you're taking in $800 million a year, $210 million over 15 years is practically pocket change.
Now, this is already beyond ugly. But, if found to be true, it's also dangerous -- and potentially deadly. Like I mentioned earlier, the studies found virtually no side effects, which is why so many doctors used it on their patients, turning the drug into such a big moneymaker.
But they found out the hard way that the bone growth drug comes with some very real side effects -- and that anywhere from 10 percent to 50 percent of the patients who are given Infuse can experience them.
Since the drug stimulates bone growth, it can work too well in some patients -- causing too much bone to grow, and one doctor reports sometimes leads to painful conditions that require surgery, sometimes multiple surgeries, to correct.
Infuse has also been linked to male sterility and a condition called retrograde ejaculation. That's when men ejaculate backwards, into the bladder instead of out the penis.
There's also a risk of infection and bone loss, and it has been linked to increased cancer risk, including cancers of the breast, prostate, and pancreas.
So whatever you do, as the old saying goes, don't believe everything you read -- even when it's published in a major medical journal. And to paraphrase that other old saying, if something sounds too good to be true... it may have been paid for by a drug company.