Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Biederman and colleagues at Harvard get a slap on the wrist

Harvard Medical School finally wrapped up its three-year-old investigation of Dr. Joseph Biederman and two colleagues accused of failing to disclose extensive financial conflicts of interest, with essentially a slap on the wrist.

In 2008, Congressional investigators accused the three psychiatrists -- Biederman, Thomas Spencer and Timothy Wilens -- of failing to disclose more than $1 million each in payments from the drug industry. As I blogged about here, most of Biederman's financial ties were with the makers of anti-psychotic drugs at the very same time he was promoting the use of these drugs in the treatment of childhood bipolar disorder. According to documents released in a lawsuit, Biederman also courted funding from Johnson & Johnson by promising that his work at Mass. General would promote the use of its anti-psychotic Risperdal in children. Johnson & Johnson gave the hospital $700,000 for a Biederman-led research center that did studies promoting Risperdal. All of which raises the question of whether Biederman helped the drug company illegally market the off-label use of its anti-psychotic drug in children

But rather than suspend or fire him for such unethical and possibly criminal behavior, Harvard and Mass. General let him and his two colleagues off easy. According to The Boston Globe, they required the three physicians to refrain from all paid industry-sponsored activities for one year and undergo unspecified additional training. A letter Biederman and his colleagues wrote to co-workers about the remedial actions also mentioned that they might "suffer a delay of consideration for promotion and advancement."

Wow, that's tough. As Dr. Jerome Kassirer, a Tufts University professor and author of On the Take, notes in The Globe article, Biederman already is a full professor at Harvard so it's unclear how a delay in promotion would affect him. This strikes me as one more example of how hospitals and medical schools are so compromised by drug company money themselves that they no longer care to impose ethical standards on their own faculty.

On a sadly related note, the mother of Iris Chang, a bestselling author and historian who killed herself in 2004, reveals in a new memoir that her daughter was taking psychoactive drugs that may have caused her suicide. Iris Chang was the author of The Rape of Nanking, a critically acclaimed history of the massacre of Chinese men, women and children by Japanese soldiers in the run-up to World War II. She was only 36 when she died and the mother of a two-year-old boy.

In her memoir, The Woman Who Could Not Forget, Ying-Ying Chang, reveals that Iris was taking Risperdal and the antidepressant Celexa, when she killed herself. Chang's mother writes that she believes Iris' suicide was caused by her medications. She calls attention to the extensive literature showing that SSRI antidepressants cause suicidal behavior in some patients (often in the days after they first start the drugs), and she notes that Iris had begun taking Celexa right before she shot herself in October 2004.

Her mother writes:
"[Iris] represented a classic case in which psychiatric medications change one's personality. I do not need to repeat the huge number of bizarre cases documented, in which an originally ordinary mildly depressed patient becomes violent and destructive after taking antidepressants...The tragic violent way she ended her life was not characteristic of Iris."
Ying-Yang said she hopes her memoir "will help people become aware of the possible danger of psychiatric drugs and to think twice before taking them."

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