Take a bad drug, and make it better…


Some drugsSo – here’s the thing. Right now, a campaign is going on to try and force drugs manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies to register every trial, and publish the results of every trial of a drug they do – the campaign is called Alltrials.

At the moment, drugs companies don’t do this – and so we get crappier medicines, which are poorly understood and so are misprescribed. This is bad – if you’re given drugs, you want them to be as effective as possible.

What I’m asking you to do is:

  1. Sign the Alltrials petition
  2. Tell everyone else you know about it

You can sign the petition and learn more here: alltrials.net

(If you feel like it, you can also donate to the Alltrials campaign here.)

At the moment the petition is on a pitiful 51,000-odd signatures. It should be in the millions.

It’s being run by the estimable Dr Ben Goldacre, among others – see more at his website: badscience.net

If you already know about this sort of stuff, you can skip everything else here. If you disagree, let me know why – or better, write a letter to Alltrials or the papers, or write a blog or whatever, and add to the debate.


(I happily admit this is cribbed from Goldacre’s book Bad Pharma, among other sources.)

The basic problem (grossly simplified) is this: DrugCo thinks its drug Pillex could be used to treat, say, arthritis. So, it runs a trial – usually a series of trials – which it pays for and arranges, to test this. (There are also problems with this bit – but that’s something else.). At this stage, the trial should be registered, so people know it’s happening – but many trials aren’t. This is the first problem Alltrials wants to fix.

If the Pillex trial gives good results – yay! The company will push to get it published, and will send it to a peer-reviewed journal (think the British Medical Journal, the Lancet, etc).

If the Pillex trial doesn’t give good results, though – ie, it shows Pillex isn’t really effective – it may not be published at all. At the moment a very large percentage (Alltrials says around 50%) of trials just vanish, like they never happened.

So if there are five Pillex trials to treat arthritis, two giving positive results, and three negative, Pillex shouldn’t be used for arthritis, right?

But if two of the negative trials are never published, then as far as doctors know, it’s two positives to one negative – and Pillex gets prescribed to arthritis patients far and wide.

This would be fine if drugs were harmless – but they all have side effects, of varying degrees of severity. So, by making it look like Pillex is effective to treat arthritis, even though it isn’t, DrugCo has exposed thousands, maybe millions of people to unnecessary side effects, and the suffering caused by them.

Worse, some unpublished trials may help hide evidence that a drug may not just be useless, but actually harmful. While it’s unlikely a drugs company would hide this deliberately, by holding back data it makes it harder to spot trends like higher death rates, etc, for patients on a given drug.There’s a lot more to the issues with the drugs industry (seriously, so much more – it’s utterly terrifying) – but getting pharma companies to commit to publishing all their trials would be a huge start to making things better.

Up to now, most of the big players have been trying to rubbish this campaign, with the UK industry body repeatedly claiming that the problems raised by Goldacre and others have all been solved – this is not true.

Finally, a few pharmaceutical companies have started signing up to Alltrials – but for it to work, it really needs everyone on board.

By making noise about this, by putting the spotlight on the problem, we can force the other companies to come around.To be clear, all that’s being asked is that, for the trials they are carrying out anyway, they commit to registering them beforehand, and publishing the results afterwards. These are both things the companies have said they’ll do in the past – but it has never happened on a significant scale.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on any of this stuff – but as someone who is very likely to be prescribed drugs at some point in the future (along with pretty much everyone I know, I would assume), I’d really like them to be the best possible drugs they can be.

That’s my rant/plea. I hope you’ll help get this moving. Thank you for your attention.

(Also, I hope I’ll get extra credit for avoiding the obvious Verve-inspired title here. Instead, I leave you with this classic earworm…)

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