Testing testing

The woes of the pharmaceutical industry are many. It has become increasingly difficult to bring new drugs to the marketplace. More bad news came on 19 January when the Cochrane Reviews series, the most objective of all medical data-gathering efforts, published findings from 14 separate large trials on the use of statins to prevent cardiovascular disease.

Statins inhibit the production of cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke in people already known to be at risk. They are also the pharmaceutical industry's biggest earners. The drug companies would like us all to take them. The reviewed data pointed to a 28 per cent reduced chance of heart attack. But the review's authors also complained about the studies. Reporting may have been selective, experiments tweaked to highlight benefits.

The reviewers concluded: "Caution should be taken in prescribing statins for primary prevention among people at low cardiovascular risk."

There appears to be a growing trend for dodgy data. The British Medical Journal recently highlighted a series of dubious facts in the article by Andrew Wakefield that sparked the MMR-autism scandal. Leading medical journals now require authors to declare any conflict of interest and state their exact roles in any study. Whatever happened to the Hippocratic oath?

This article first appeared in the 07 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The New Arab Revolt