Opinion

Drug company fails test of morality on Alzheimer’s

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My mother, Louise Farmer, died in October 2015, but she was gone a long time before that. She had Alzheimer’s disease – a cruel bastard that robs people of their memories and their lives.

That same year, according to The Washington Post, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer made a startling discovery after reviewing insurance claim data:

“The company’s blockbuster rheumatoid arthritis therapy Enbrel, a powerful anti-inflammatory drug, appeared to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 64 percent,” The Post reported.

Pfizer researchers urged the company to conduct a trial of the drug as a treatment for the terrible disease. They estimated the cost at $80 million.

They neither tested the drug’s effectiveness as a treatment nor released the data that they had discovered. The company’s actions show a moral failing and are a call for tougher regulation.

The company told The Post that the decision not to test the drug’s effectiveness on the disease was based on science and that they didn’t release the results because they were in doubt.

After The Post’s story, Pfizer pushed back.

“Our decision not to pursue a broader clinical trial … [was] based first and foremost on scientific rationale and not on the basis of financial incentives as the story seems to imply,” Pfizer said in a statement reported by the New York Post.

Pfizer also has its defenders. Derek Lowe, for example, follows the pharmaceutical industry and writes a blog Science Translational Medicine. Lowe is critical of The Post story and defends Pfizer’s actions.

But there were clearly other factors beyond science at play, according to The Post. The patent on Enbrel was running out. Three years later, in 2018, Pfizer shut down its neurological division, which worked on Alzheimer’s.

One former Pfizer executive put it this way to The Post: Wagering money on a clinical trial of Enbrel for an entirely different disease, especially when Pfizer had doubts about the validity of its internal analysis, made little business sense.

I am a liberal Democrat, and I’m a capitalist. I do not believe that in most circumstances the government should control the means of production. But the actions of large corporations like Pfizer test my faith in Adam Smith.

If Pfizer was uninterested in studying the effect of Enbrel on Alzheimer’s patients, then the company should have released the information it had discovered. Whether new or accurate, it might have been helpful to other researchers.

Great scientific discovery is built on the shoulders of the work done by others – some of whom have been successful and some of whom have failed.

In 2016, the year after Pfizer canned its Enbrel data, the company reported profits of $40.5 billion on revenue of $52.8 billion. For the 12 months ending March 31, 2019, the company reported profits of $42.7 billion on revenue of $52.8 billion.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, someone develops the disease or another form of dementia every 65 seconds. One in three seniors will die with the disease, and it’s expected to cost our country $290 billion in 2019 alone.

Between 2016 and 2019, Pfizer’s profits grew by more than $2 billion. And yet a possible breakthrough on a disease that kills more people than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined and effects nearly 6 million people in the US was ignored.

It’s no secret that the way we deliver health care in the US is messed up. It’s too expensive and our outcomes lag behind other countries. And for all of its talk of driving innovation, we know that a lot of drug companies are content to just drive profits.

There’s a day of reckoning coming. The frustration of the people is nearing the boiling point. And when they come for you, they won’t be wielding pitchforks; they’re coming with price caps, negotiating power, changes in patent law and regulatory reforms, which includes a focus on marketing and lobbying.

David Farmer is a public affairs, political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s 2014 campaign for governor.

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