Conflicted psychiatrists strike back — against the media

Anyone keeping up with the news knows that a number of prominent psychiatrists have been under seige of late after Congressional allegations that they failed to disclose lucrative payments from drug companies whose products they were studying and promoting on the medical circuit. Now comes evidence that some of these key opinion leaders (KOLs as they are known in the industry) are pushing back, accusing the press of launching a “witch-hunt” and trying to intimidate some of the media messengers.

To wit: One of the featured topics at the November 2009 conference of the International Forum on Mood and Anxiety Disorders in Monaco is Making sense of media attacks on experts: is this a wanton witch hunt?” According to my sources, the forum is essentially an “astroturf creation” of Pharma directed by two prominent psychiatrists with industry ties in Europe. The invited speaker list includes the usual list of KOL suspects, including our very own Alan Schatzberg, who is stepping down as chair of psychiatry at Stanford University.

Schatzberg and Stanford insist that his departure has nothing to do with the media blitz that occurred after a probe by Sen. Charles Grassley uncovered evidence that Schatzberg had failed to disclose he owned $4.8 million in stocks in a company he cofounded — Corcept Therapeutics — at a time when he was principal investigator of a NIH-funded study of Corcept’s drug for treating depression. Stanford fully disclosed Schatzberg’s stock ownership to Grassley’s team only after The New York Times, Business Week and other media took note of the Congressional investigation, according to my sources. Shortly thereafter, Stanford asked Schatzberg to step down as principal investigator of the NIH study. And now it has come to light that Stanford is looking for a new chair of its psychiatry department. University officials insist Schatzberg decided to step down long before the conflict of interest contratemps. I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to decide if you believe them.

Schatzberg may be on his way out, but in the meantime, he and Stanford have been busy haranguing the likes of the New York Review of Books (for publishing Marcia Angell’s article on medical corruption) in which she noted Schatzberg’s conflicts;CBS, which reported on Stanford’s problems, and the Corporate Crime Reporter, which recently published an interview with me here about conflicts of interest in medicine. Stanford media relations demanded corrections from all three media, insisting that Stanford fully disclosed Schatzberg’s conflicts of interest. Last I heard, there have been no corrections issued.

Schatzberg, it turns out, is no stranger to litigation. A few years ago, he sued University of Massachusetts psychiatrist Anthony Rothschild alleging that Rothschild had libeled and defamed him. Among other juicy items, the lawsuit, which was filed in California Superior Court (Santa Clara County), alleges that Rothschild, using a fake email and name, reported on a Yahoo message board that Schatzberg was using his position at chair of psychiatry at Stanford to promote Corcept’s drug and that he and his cofounder knew the drug didn’t work (for depression) as far back as 2005 and were selling stock in the company.

There is a history here, of course: In the late 1980s, Rothschild and Schatzberg worked together at Harvard’s McLean Hospital, where they came up with the idea of using a drug to block the stress hormone cortisol as a possible treatment for depression. Their brainstorm was to use the abortion drug RU-486, whose main ingredient is mifepristone, a chemical known to block cortisol. But then Schatzberg became chair of psychiatry at Stanford in 1991 and apparently took the idea with him, co-founding Corcept a few years later. At one point in this bizarre saga, Partners, which owns McLean Hospital, even sued Stanford over the patent for Corcept’s drug (the case was settled in mediation from what I gather).

What all this shows is that Schatzberg is not afraid to throw lawyers at his critics. I wonder if that’s the kind of aggressive action he’ll advise at the wanton witch-hunt session in Monaco. What I want to know is: who’s paying for his trip there?

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3 Responses to Conflicted psychiatrists strike back — against the media

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