As I See It: Access to data

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Paul Thacker
Paul Thacker

It seems that Pharma is coming around. In February, Johnson & Johnson announced it was granting independent scientists access to all of its clinical trial data. It's a bold move. For too long critics have noted that pharmaceutical companies have failed to allow independent medical experts to examine their data when a drug was suspected of causing harm. The most famous recent case involved GlaxoSmithKline's (GSK) diabetes drug Avandia. When a cardiologist asked to see the company's data, GSK said they would do so only if the physician partnered with a company statistician. With increasing public pressure—partly in response to the Avandia ­controversy—GSK relented and created a website that allows researchers to download data from their company's clinical trials to examine it themselves.

But recent data disclosures stand in contrast to most of pharmaceutical research. The majority of registered clinical trials are never published, most likely because they don't show results that favor a company's drug. This means decisions about how to treat patients are based on incomplete data—data that favors corporate profit.

While the first steps of these companies are welcome, and required, we need the rest of the pharmaceutical companies to come forward and make the same pledge to stop hiding data. These games with numbers, in which companies publish studies but don't let anyone examine the data, have got to cease. Johnson & Johnson and GSK should be applauded for these efforts at transparency. It's time for the rest of the companies to do the same.


Paul Thacker, formerly an investigator for Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), is a lab fellow at Harvard's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and an advisor to nonprofits and foundations.

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