Writing in the Toronto Star this morning, I look at the case of a McGill University psychology professor, Barbara Sherwin, whose name appeared atop an article prepared by ghostwriting firm DesignWrite as part of its contract to promote Wyeth Pharmaceutical's HRT drugs.
A top Canadian researcher studying hormone replacement therapy was part of a ghostwriting scheme paid for by drug giant Wyeth Pharmaceuticals to promote its products, court documents obtained by the Toronto Star indicate.
The article in question appeared in the April 2000 edition of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society and listed McGill University psychology professor Barbara Sherwin as author.
It argued that estrogen could help treat memory loss in older patients, while offering other benefits.
Sherwin is the first Canadian implicated in an ongoing scandal in the United States, where court documents – unsealed recently after a successful motion by The New York Times and the journal PLoS Medicine – have lifted the veil on the extent of ghostwriting in the pharmaceutical industry.
The university is investigating.
"McGill University is committed to the highest standards of honesty and integrity in research and scholarship and takes substantiated allegations of research misconduct very seriously," said provost Anthony C. Masi in a statement yesterday.
"The university has an established process for investigating and dealing with such allegations, (and) will look into this matter and take appropriate action."
Sherwin's article examined treatments for memory loss in aging patients. It favoured estrogen, used in hormone replacement therapy, saying the hormone could also help prevent cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis, as well as reduce the risk of colorectal cancer and "all-cause mortality in postmenopausal women."
"Since estrogen has been used for nearly 60 years, its effective dosages, side effects, and influences on other organ systems are well known," the study says, describing estrogen as "relatively safe." The study, a copy of which remains in the stacks of the University of Toronto's medical school library, lists Sherwin as the sole author.
But court documents now indicate that New Jersey ghostwriting firm DesignWrite, hired by Wyeth to promote its products, actually penned the article.
The danger of ghostwriting, said James Szaller, a Cleveland lawyer leading a large class-action suit against Wyeth, is that doctors rely on such articles when caring for their patients.
"It puts patients at risk, and doctors are relying on marketing materials and not truly clinical studies or unbiased reviews of the medical literature," he said. "It's insane."
"I wrote a portion of the article, but not all of it, although only my name was listed as its author. Other parts of that article were written with the assistance of DesignWrite, a firm which, it turns out, was employed by a pharmaceutical manufacturer to assist in the development of academic articles," she said in the email statement.
"I made an error in agreeing to have my name attached to that article without having it made clear that others contributed to it. It is an error I regret and which had never occurred before or since. I received no remuneration for the article in question. I believe the article, which was peer-reviewed, represented sound and thorough scholarship and in no way could be construed as promotion for any particular product or company."
Szaller, who for four years has sifted through internal DesignWrite documents, said Sherwin seems to have offered "a fair amount of editing" suggestions to the writers, compared with others working with DesignWrite.
"There are some who simply seemed to glance at it and make one- or two-word changes," he said.