Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Latest Conflict of Interest Poster Child: Dr. Zachary Stowe

The latest casualty of Charles Grassley’s investigations of conflict on interest is Zachary Stowe of Emory University.

Dr. Stowe is probably the most well known researcher in the risks of breastfeeding while taking antidepressants, and it is sad to see his reputation taking a nose-dive with these revelations.

The news originally broke in this article in the Wall Street Journal
, but if you can’t stand the idea of actually paying for content you can find some of the same information for free on this post on the WSJ blog.

The bottom line is that Stowe has run into the same ethical problem as his boss Dr. Nemeroff—he was taking public NIH money to conduct research, while at the same time giving dozens of promotional talks for a company that stood to benefit from the results of that research.

Specifically, GlaxoSmithKline (makers of Paxil and Lamictal) paid Stowe $154,400 in 2007 and $99,300 during the first 10 months of 2008.

When I first saw this story I was rather unfazed and wasn’t even sure it was worth blogging about. Another academic using his NIH-supercharged credibility to make a bundle by hiring himself out to the highest bidders? Yawn, right?

But when I started to look through the publicly available documents, I realized there’s a bit more to this story than meets the eye.

For one thing, Stowe appears to have been deceptive during a recent deposition, when he claimed that on top of his $232,000 Emory salary, he earned an additional 20 – 30% more doing work for pharmaceutical companies. But wait a minute--if he made $154,400 from GSK alone in 2007, by my calculation this is already 66% more salary than he got from Emory. And Stowe did work for lots of other companies as well. Here is his disclosure from a Medscape CME gig he did in March 2007:

Disclosure: Zachary N. Stowe, MD, has disclosed that he has received grants for clinical research, grants for educational activities, and has served as an advisor or consultant to GlaxoSmithKline, Wyeth, and Pfizer. Dr. Stowe has also disclosed that he has served as an advisor or consultant for Bristol-Myers Squibb. Dr. Stowe has also disclosed that he has served on the speaker's bureau for GlaxoSmithKline, Wyeth, Pfizer, and Eli Lilly.

Who knows how much money he was also getting from Wyeth, Pfizer, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Eli Lilly? He may very well have doubled his Emory salary, or more.

Furthermore, the $154,400 disclosed by GSK does not include all the cash they paid Stowe through laundered CME money. For example, here is a CME program
Stowe did for Medscape that was funded by GSK. The program is entitled “Long-term health risks of antiepileptic drugs in women” and is essentially a commercial for using Lamictal in pregnant women with bipolar disorder. In it, Stowe begins by saying nasty things about Lamictal’s competitors, Depakote and Tegretol, and then minimizes a large study showing that Lamictal causes cleft palate. I’m sure he got paid a lot for this, and that he did plenty of other similar CME programs that are scattered somewhere throughout the internet.

But wait! There’s more!

We learn from a remarkable series of emails furnished by GSK to Grassley that Stowe gets pretty agitated when he doesn't get enough promotional money. Look at Attachment C of Grassley’s letter
if you’d like to follow along here.

First, sometime in August of 2003, a GSK rep emails Stowe that he is “sincerely sorry” but that they have to cancel two scheduled talks (that would have been $2500 a pop, his usual rate) in Wisconsin because attendance was too low.

On 8/19/09, Stowe responds politely, but says that this late cancellation presents "two problems." As it turns out, Stowe schedules only 4 days per month to give talks for drug companies, and the cancellation meant that “others are denied speaking engagements.” He then asks, “What provisions do you propose for my compensation for my lost time?”.

Stowe's second problem is that he had apparently been coordinating this GSK gig with a meeting at the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology and he would now have to arrange a new flight at the last minute. He believes, therefore, that GSK owes him: “Given the circumstances I think GSK should book and cover the costs of the trip up as well…”

I guess I can understand Stowe’s being upset about a last minute cancellation of a lucrative speaking gig. If he had already paid for a plane ticket for that, then of course GSK would owe him that money. But that’s not the case here. Stowe was apparently planning to mooch off some aspect of the GSK travel to defray some costs associated with a meeting he was planning to go to anyway. Without the GSK money, he now has to pay his own way entirely, and so he wants GSK to fund those costs, even though it has nothing to do with GSK!

You can imagine that whoever got this email was not very happy, and didn’t respond as quickly as Stowe wanted. So Stowe sends off another email on 8/27/03, again pretty polite, admitting that he had once rescheduled these talks, and that since maybe his recheduling affected the attendance, he would settle for getting paid only $2500 for a talk he never gave, rather than insisting on $5000 for two talks he never gave.

But still no reponse from GSK. Stowe fires off another missive on 9/13 saying he was sorry the programs “didn’t work out” and wants to make sure they have his address for a check.

Again, utter email silence from GSK—what lousy handlers they are! So on 9/18, Stowe lets it rip. Warning that he is “no longer in a compromising mood,” he is now demanding $4500, not just $2500, and points out that “you are still getting a $500 discount” because he usually gets $5000 for two talks.

On the same day, he emails a colleague, apparently someone higher up in his department (a wild guess: Nemeroff?) to complain about the issue:

“REP NO RESPONSE – need your input or direction where to take this….I emailed the rep 3 times now with no response, because I had originally rescheduled this from an earlier date I told the rep that I would be okay with the 2,500 instead of the full 5,000 for the last minute cancellations (which I thought was very nice of me). She has failed to respond to 3 emails and I am getting slightly agitated, in fact to the point that she can just find the full 5,000 since my compromise has been ignored. I know that this has no business on your radar screen, but need a name of who to go to. Thanks for your help- talk to you soon. Any feedback on the Miami gig yet?”

I don’t know what the “Miami gig” meant, but I hope he got $5000 out of it!

Finally, on 9/19, somebody from the company responds, saying they will “take care of it.” According to Grassley, eventually Stowe received some compensation, but we don’t know exactly how much.

What to make of all this? It's a creepy insider's look at how entitled our key opinion leaders became at the height of the drug company gravy train in the early to mid 2000's. The only good news is that it is all coming to a screeching halt. According to the WSJ, Stowe has been formally reprimanded by Emory and ordered to cease his promotional talks. Of course, Emory recently announced a new policy that bans such practices anyway, so this may be a bit of overkill.


Unknown said...

No wonder my prescription is so expensive LOL

Anonymous said...

The other thing that Grassley points out in his letter is that Emory put out a press release on Stowe's work on Paxil on breast milk.

But the press relase was written by a PR firm working for GSK!

Grassley wrote, "Especially disturbing is an email between employees at GSK and a public
relations (PR) firm that the GSK hired. The email was titled “For your review/Paxil
Breast Milk Press Release” and states:

[P]lease review the attached press release and forward me any comments/edits.
As you may know, Dr. Stowe is on board for publicity efforts and NAME REDACTED and I are coordinating time to meet with him next week to arm him with the key messages for this announcement, which is slated for early February.
We are sending the release for your review at the same time in efforts to secure distribution on Emory letterhead (as you know, would provide further credibility
to data for the media)."

This is simply incredible.

Anonymous said...

"Miami gig?" What is this guy, a jazz singerZ?

Psychiatrist in Iowa said...

I'd like to mention another Pharma "poster child": Dr. Henry Nasrallah. I see in this month's Current Psychiatry that he is once again using his pupit to be Pharma's lead apologist/defender. His tone seems to be increasingly shrill. He bemoans the "relentless demonization of pharmaceutical companies" as if they bear no responsibility for their own problems. Like so many other people who are immersed in coroporate culture, he lives in this bubble where everything that they have done seems perfectly rational and where all detractors are hounding them unfairly. Someone needs to tell this emperor that he has no clothes.

Yes, the pharmaceutical industry may be in a recession, but they only have themselves to blame. They chose to prioritize "me-too" drugs and treatments for contrived minor ailments, rather than focusing on drugs that were truly novel and useful. They weren't driven into a recesson by their critics. Instead, like so many other industries in the US, they damaged themselves by engaging in unbridled, unregulated profit-seeking.

I really do enjoy Current Psychiatry; month after month, it publishes intersting and useful articles. I can't get myself to quit reading it, even though I know that it is a marketing tool. But one thing that I am weary of is Nasrallah. I'm sure that there was a time when he was a respected clinician, teacher, and opinion leader. But nowadays, how can you see him as anything other than a woefully misguided commercial spokesman for an industry that is in serious need of an overhaul? He is out of touch with the prevailing mood of our profession and of our society. He should be replaced.

Gina Pera said...

Speaking of Grassley, when will a reporter investigate that grandstander par excellence? Anybody that age who is that obsessively "tweetie," firing off hyperbolic text messages to Obama...gees. No one questions his motives at all?

Anonymous said...

It will be interesting to see if Dr. Zach's patients email him and request compensation for the time wasted waiting on him.

Anonymous said...

I am certain that I cannot quantify monetarily the amount of time and effort that Dr.Stowe has spent taking care of my wife for free. As a result we have two unbelievably healthy children and 12 years later he still picks up the phone ready to help.
Not perfect, but brilliant with out a doubt.

Anonymous said...

As a patient of Dr. Stowe's for over three years, I can say that to know him is to love him, and to be his patient is to be truly cared for. Someone's rather unfavorable opinion of a man can never diminish who he really is to those who know him.

Anonymous said...

Your investigation skills leave something to be desired. As someone who once worked with Dr. Stowe, I can say that any funding from drug companies was used solely for animal research NEVER human research. Because most of the program's subjects were pregnant at their initial appointment, it was standard operating procedure to have them continue on whatever medication they had previously been prescribed by other physicians. The number one rule was to limit exposures. He did not care for drug reps and generally would not allow them more than 5 minutes of his time every once in a blue moon. He NEVER displayed any of their pamphlets. The animal research conducted on one big name antidepressant actually resulted in it almost never being prescribed (and this was a drug made by a company he regularly did talks for). And as far as talks go, you cannot believe the amount of ignorance there is in the obstetrical/psychiatric community regarding the use of psychotropic medications in pregnancy. They systematically have women discontinue their medication, only to have them end up in a major depressive state or in the psych ward. Despite all the research that points to the adverse outcomes of children born to a mother who had a period of dysthymia during pregnancy, the medical community at large continues to recommend discontinuing psychotropic medication during pregnancy. Those much slandered talks were a MUCH NEEDED way to educate OB-GYNs and other psychiatrists about the latest research in pregnancy and postpartum. If you've never felt the emotional pain of being ill while carrying a life or wanting to die after you've given birth, you are lucky. For those that are not so lucky, if they found Dr. Stowe, their world would improve dramatically. His patients mean everything to him and he is there for them at all hours. I've never met a more dedicated physician (and I've worked in the medical community for 15+ years.

Anonymous said...

I found this post in trying to locate Dr. Stowe. He helped me through two pregnancies years ago and I was hoping he would be there for me during menopause. I see though that he has left Atlanta, no doubt partially due to other folks such as yourself with limited knowledge but very big mouths. As his former co-worker indicates, there is very little knowledge among OB/GYNs of the proper treatment of mental health issues in pregnant women. I was receiving sub-par care and was at my wits end when I found Dr. Stowe. I have no doubt that he saved my life. Please think of the impact on others before you blast off about things that you know very little about. Dr. Stowe has helped countless women in his career.