Dead Air by Deborah Shlian & Linda Reid not so “over-the-top”

Dead Air deals with an unethical medical experiment conducted on a college campus. When the usual government and university research grants begin to dry up (as they did in the 1990’s), the fictional character, Dr. Marcus Palmer, accepts funding from a Japanese pharmaceutical company. Unfortunately, he doesn’t realize until it’s too late that the money comes with strings. If he reports the complications from his experimental vaccine to the Institutional Review Board (IRB) of the university, he will be forced to stop his work and lose a lucrative source of research grants. If he doesn’t, his subjects (college students at fictional Ellsford University) will die.

While this may seem like an over-the-top premise, sadly there have been more than a few recent cases of drug studies that should have been discontinued long before a whistleblower or more often, a patient/victim reported critical complications.

The whole issue of conflicts of interest in medical research today has suddenly become nonfiction.

In 2009, the New York Times reported ethical conflicts exposed by a medical student at Harvard Medical School , considered one of the best in the country. At that time, although many students agreed with the whistleblower, others felt strong relationships between industry and academia was important for developing new medical treatments and technologies. In the New York Times article, Dr. Marcia Angell, a faculty member and former editor in chief of The New England Journal of Medicine argued that industry profit motives do not correspond to the scientific aims of academia and that much of the financing should not only disclosed, but banned. She said that as in Dead Air, too many medical researchers and academic institutions have struck a “Faustian bargain” with pharmaceutical companies. Just this year, Harvard Medical School has updated its conflict of interest policies.

Still, just today another Reuters article disclosed that more than 17,000 doctors and other healthcare providers have taken money from seven major pharmaceutical companies (AstraZeneca, Cephalon, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Eli Lilly, Merck and Pfizer) to educate practicing physicians about their products. According to an investigation by journalism group ProPublica, Consumer Reports magazine, NPR radio and several publications, at least 380 of the doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other professionals each took in more than $100,000 in 2009 and 2010.

The payments are not illegal and usually not even considered improper. But the investigation showed doctors were sometimes urged to recommend “off-label” prescriptions of drugs – that is, prescribing them for conditions for which the FDA has not given approval.

Check out more about Dead Air here

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