Documents detail Wyeth's ghostwriting practices

In another round of ethical questions for drugmakers and medical journals, newly unveiled court documents show that Wyeth paid ghostwriters to author some 26 articles supporting hormone replacement therapy, which were published in journals under the bylines of doctors who often contributed little but their names to the text. Worse, the articles tended to be "review" pieces, which analyze existing research and offer treatment recommendations, and did not disclose the involvement of ghostwriters. And worse still, the documents indicate that other drugmakers have routinely employed similar strategies to get their drugs in the medical limelight.

The New York Times--which fought to have the documents made public--reports that these ghostwritten articles "emphasized the benefits and de-emphasized the risks" of using hormone replacements. Published between 1998 and 2005 in 18 journals, such as the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, the articles would have helped Wyeth pump up sales of Premarin and Prempro, which accounted for nearly $2 billion in sales in 2001. The company says that the articles are scientifically sound and that drugmakers regularly use ghostwriters for journal submissions.

As you know, HRT has since lost favor, in part because of a major government study that uncovered serious risks associated with the drugs. And Wyeth has attracted numerous lawsuits from patients who allege that the company knew of the risks but promoted the drugs anyway. At the same time, scrips have dropped from more than 60 million to less than 20 million, according to the NYT.

Ghostwriting has cropped up as an issue as lawmakers and others have increased scrutiny of the financial ties between drugmakers and academic researchers, and of industry influence on medical publishing. You'll recall, for instance, that Merck came in for criticism because of ghostwritten journal articles supporting Vioxx. Wyeth itself has curtailed the practice, with a policy instituted in 2006; under those rules, bylined authors have to be involved early in the writing process, and financial ties to Wyeth and/or contributions from ghostwriters have to be disclosed in the published article.

- read the New York Times story