Keynote scientist at ScienceWriters conference dances around the truth

Dr. Helen Mayberg, a neurologist at Emory University, had top billing at the annual Science Writers conference in New Haven Sunday to talk about her work in using deep brain stimulation to treat depression. Nearly 500 writers, editors, public information officers and students listened as she spoke of inserting electrodes into the frontal lobes of chronically depressed patients for whom other treatments (like drugs and ECT) have failed. She spoke with wonder of being able to help “patient after patient” awake from the fog of depression and how for some patients, the difference was like “night and day.”

As it turns out, Dr. Mayberg left out a few salient details. To begin with, she never mentioned how many depressed patients have actually benefited from this risky surgical technique. She did say that in the initial feasibility study she and colleagues did in 2002 while she was at the University of Toronto, electrodes were surgically implanted in six patients and four out of six “got better and stayed better.” She also alluded to a slightly larger study of 20 patients she conducted at Emory in which “patients are achieving remission.” But she did not how many patients are actually in remission and for what length of time, or whether the results are statistically significant, only that “we are now writing up the paper for submission.” Her talk was heavy on anecdotal examples but skimpy on any real evidence of efficacy.

Of equal concern, Mayberg did not fully disclose the extent of her conflicts of interest. At the beginning of her talk, she mentioned that she held a patent for the technique and that it was now in clinical trials. She also said she was a consultant for St. Jude Medical. Now, St. Jude Medical Center is the name of a well-regarded nonprofit hospital in California and the clear implication (to many of us in the audience) was that she was consulting for a nonprofit hospital. In fact, Mayberg is a consultant for Advanced Neuromodulation Systems, which also goes by the name of St. Jude Medical Inc., a for-profit multinational company that manufactures medical devices and has annual revenues of $4.6 billion.

This is the company that holds the patent for Mayberg’s surgical technique and has begun clinical trials to test it. And it has a less than stellar reputation. Last year, the FDA hit St. Jude Medical, otherwise known as ANS, with a stern warning letter alleging that the company had failed to correct known design defects in spinal cord stimulation devices it sells to treat chronic pain. The FDA letter said the manufacture and installation of these devices are not in conformity with good manufacturing practice requirements and called the company to task for failing to respond to previous warnings from FDA inspectors about the devices’ defects.

Now maybe St. Jude has cleaned up its act, although as of this afternoon a phone call to its corporate headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota had not been returned. But if I were a chronically depressed patient being recruited for the company’s ongoing clinical trials, I might think twice about participating. And if I had been one of the organizers for the 2010 Science Writers conference, I might have thought twice about inviting Mayberg to speak in the first place.

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