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A Lesson in the Corporate Sponsorship of Medical Research

These days, medical science seems to be advancing at a glacial pace. From the deluge of television commercials proclaiming new and improved medications for almost every disease under the sun, one would think that progress was being made. The reality of this ‘new drug’ phenomenon however, is that in order to protect their market share against time-sensitive patent protection legislation, the big drug companies refresh their patents by slightly changing the formulation of the known compound, which they claim is clinically superior to the previous drug formulation. Then they call the drug something else and promote it with massive advertising campaigns. But the truth is that these new medications are not much improvement over what has been available for decades. Many new medications are fraught with a multitude of side effects, some serious. How did we get to the point in disease treatment when we are doing little more than marking time?

In the heady days of the last century, frequent and significant medical discoveries, like the eradication of polio and smallpox, advances in treatments for some types of cancer, and organ transplantation seemed to be the very thing that defined our civilization. Back in the 1960s experts frequently made promises of cures for all cancers, and even the common cold within decades, if not sooner. Scientists were so bold in their claims it was as if humans as a species, were truly meant to assert dominion over all of nature. But those days are long gone. There is little on the horizon in the way of new cures for the diseases we most fear. The frequency of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease has become frighteningly more prevalent, and the risk of developing cancer at some time in our lives has increased from 1-in-3 to 1-in-2 over the past two decades or so. Infectious diseases, once thought to be universally treatable are again on the rise. As the years continue to pass without announcements of significant medical achievements, we have had to adjust our expectations downward. But we also know that every so often great leaps forward are seen in ‘breakthrough’ discoveries that give us hope for new, more effective therapies. So where are the breakthroughs in medicine when we need them most?

Breakthroughs Threaten Corporate Financial Interests

Breakthrough discoveries are disruptive and change the way an entire field of endeavour functions. We need only consider what digitization of information and the ability to move vast quantities of ones and zeros electronically through our computers has done for all forms of entertainment consumption over the past decade. From watching movies and playing games to communicating with our friends and families, the way we spend our time has changed forever. It is always the goal of scientists and innovators in any field to discover ‘what works better’. Indeed without disruptive technologies, there would be no advancement in our social conventions, business practices, lifestyles, health, longevity, or enlightenment. Without new technology, new processes, and new knowledge we would not have the internet, the smart phone or our new information-based economy. But breakthrough innovations more often than not, fly in the face of conventional beliefs, and often, financial interests. That statement was never more accurate than in the treatment of diseases. Resistance to any breakthrough discovery is the usual kneejerk reaction by the incumbent powers with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. So too, the history of medical innovation includes many discoveries that were initially belittled and rejected by the medical establishment.

Among the most well-known are Mendel’s laws of inheritance, the germ theory, antiseptic cleansing, the relationship of viruses to cancer, H. pylori and its relationship to stomach ulcers, infectious proteins, immunotherapy for cancer, and traumatic brain injury acquired through sports concussions. Although some of these discoveries happened almost 2 centuries ago, there is a common element in each. At the core of each breakthrough theory was a single-minded scientist willing to discard convention and push the envelope of what seemed to be possible. Each of them caused a paradigm shift in scientific understanding. And in each case, they paid an extraordinary personal price for their observations and exposure of new truths. Most had to endure public ridicule and universal rejection by a community of peers. Today it seems preposterous that ‘the germ theory’ could have been challenged given the immediate strong evidence. But rejection of new, valid science by esteemed scientists, who should know better, is still happening and arguably, more ardently than ever.  In fact, many of the above mentioned discoveries and subsequent rejections by the medical establishment are quite recent. But something has changed in the past few decades since big corporations got bigger and took over medicine. These corporate interests have set out to control the direction of medical research, what passes for ‘evidence-based’ science, and the very way medicine is practiced. So it is with Dr. Bennet Omalu. If that name means nothing to you now, it soon will as he becomes the hero played by Marquee Star Will Smith in the blockbuster Hollywood movie ‘Concussion’.

The NFL vs the Concussion Theory

Often a fight over the validity of new scientific theories becomes very public and unpleasant as powerful corporate interests are threatened by good, honest research. Performing research into sports-related chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE as a result of traumatic brain injury, or TBI), New York-based forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu discovered how powerful economic forces could mobilize attacks on important and valid research. After Omalu’s paper was first published in the scientific journal ‘Neurosurgery’ in 2005, his conclusions were mercilessly attacked by a multi-billion dollar industry with a lot to lose based on his findings. What did he conclude as a result of his research that was so provocative? Omalu’s small study examined a single professional football player’s brain after death (Pittsburgh Steeler’s Mike Webster). His observations identified that neuropathological changes consistent with long-term repetitive concussive brain injury in a professional football player are potentially catastrophic for the football player, and that the phenomenon was insufficiently observed and required more study. That’s all his research stated.

Since 1994 when the NFL established the ‘Mild Traumatic Brain Injury’ Committee (MTBI) they had virtually controlled all major studies into concussions in professional football. The committee, which was made up of a group of team physicians, regularly published findings in ‘Neurology’. These studies were designed to conclude the fact that there was no link between repetitive concussive brain injury and cognitive decline. Now, a new player entered the field — an interloper who was not involved in the master plan. Opposed to any concussion studies that they could not control as a threat to their existence, the National Football League immediately mobilized their small army of physicians to attack Dr. Omalu — and not just his research. In a letter to the scientific journal Neuroscience, they accused Omalu of fraud, and tried to discredit him both personally and professionally. Shortly after publication, they demanded that Omalu’s article be retracted, and engaged in a national smear campaign. In an effort to negatively influence the journal’s editorial board, they organized the publication of false allegations printed repeatedly and frequently in the global news media. Nationally known journalists, influenced by the NFL, were recruited to disparage Omalu’s cultural background, linking other professional corruption in Nigeria to his study, calling his reasoning ‘fallacious’. The NFL attempted to influence his institute to cut off his research funding. When Omalu started to finance the NFL player autopsies himself, he was accused of misappropriating public resources. To escalate matters, his boss, Dr. Cyril Wecht of the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office was actually charged with multiple counts of fraud through an FBI investigation and was told that the charges would be dropped if he would shift the blame onto Omalu. In the meantime Wecht was forced to resign in disgrace. Omalu’s family was followed and threatened. Because he was black, they even accused him of practicing Voodoo. Using their built-in media platform, the doctors on the NFL payroll appeared on television and spoke in radio interviews specifically designed to be critical of both Omalu and his research. The pressure became too much. Unable to endure the constant harassment by paid disruptors and the negative media, Omalu removed himself from the spotlight. He quietly resigned and moved across the country to California where he is now the chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County, a rural community.

What was at stake and who would benefit from the ruination of Omalu’s reputation? Time and again, in many studies and articles released by the NFL’s in-house Committee established to investigate ‘Mild Traumatic Brain Injury’, the same committee members, the same physicians paid by the NFL to attack Omalu, denied a link between concussions and cognitive decline. But Omalu’s evidence demonstrated a firm link between these two events after only a single study. We now know that the NFL suspected this too since the 1970s; the lawyers who are currently filing law suits on behalf of former professional players charge that the NFL was involved in ‘a scheme of fraud and deceit’ by failing to warn players of the extreme dangers they faced, and by publishing their own research that falsely minimized the risks of head injuries.

Omalu fought back and continued to publish. After being almost universally rejected by colleagues scared to get involved with him lest they be tarred with the same brush and singled out in the media, he was now starting to get help from new independent medical studies that were making similar findings. Other researchers too were finding serious fault with the committee’s methodology as it was discovered that the NFL-sponsored research drew their conclusions from simple voluntary surveys mailed out to a small number of retired players.

Corporate Sponsored Research is a Conflict of Interest

This is how the discreditation of good science and the defamation of honest scientists happens. Journalists and the media are easily bought platforms that are corruptible through their sponsors. They are prepared to tell lies on the basis that once a lie is told often enough and loudly enough it becomes the truth. The lesson from this is that powerful corporations can incentivize others to do just about anything, including subverting novel science that can lead to new life-saving medical treatments. In the case of concussion studies, through power and influence, the NFL had control of the science. As part of their strategy, they had paid many physicians to publish study after study that they knew was dishonest research. They had gifted millions to other academics and academic medical centers for sponsored studies that would never see the light of day if they produced objectionable results. In fact, the more they spent on the sponsorship of the research, the more the science of traumatic brain injury became distorted. And when an upstart independent researcher like Omalu came along to publish contradictory evidence, the NFL ignored it and mustered all of its power to destroy his credibility — even although his science was sound and eventually proven. Money is all it takes. When required, elite corporations fire up the machinery and bring in the strategists. With as much football as appears on television and in the media, the NFL is in a favorable position to influence public opinion through network television and the print media. Big corporations manipulate public opinion all the time — and they do it openly and with impunity. They are not scared of loss to reputation or of prosecution if wrongdoing is discovered. No judge has ever sent a corporation to jail. Paying experts and manipulating the media is how they attempted to discredit Omalu and his research. Since not one doctor spoke up for Omalu during his years of persecution, even after his research had been reviewed by a total of 18 physicians before it was published in Neurology, we are left to believe that the smear campaign worked. Omalu found that despite his groundbreaking discovery, few scientists outside of his team would collaborate with him on future research. And in the places where it counted, nobody really believed his research despite the fact that the journal never retracted his publication.

Enter Dr. Peter Davies of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York is a researcher who had studied Alzheimer’s disease for over 30 years. In 2008 he was asked by the NFL to prepare a report on the validity of Omalu’s study. Davies was chosen by the NFL after careful vetting because they felt that he was the one researcher they could depend on to come out with a negative report on Omalu’s research. Davies has admitted that before he started, he did not believe Omalu’s conclusions either and, influenced by what he had heard about Omalu in the media, he did not want to work with him. That is, until he actually looked at the same brain tissue as Omalu. Previous to that he thought that Omalu was well-intentioned but naïve and lacked knowledge in his area. Certainly his conclusions weren’t consensus opinions in the neurology community.  His claims were just too outrageous. Davies believed that it simply was not possible to draw the conclusions Omalu published in his two papers. But after careful study in his own lab, using his team of researchers, to his credit, Davies wrote a report to the NFL detailing his findings, saying yes, Omalu was right. Did that vindicate Omalu? Hardly. The NFL buried Davies’ report, and never made it public. Instead, the league commissioned a new study with a group of researchers that they funded to buy more time and attempted to discredit Omalu’s findings with another approach amid deliberate obfuscation and misdirection.

So it was that the person who blew the whistle on head injuries in sports, Dr. Bennet Omalu, was shut out of all meaningful dialogue as his peers now gathered for important conferences on the subject that he exposed. In 2007, responding to the growing concern about the number of concussions football players were now reporting, the NFL sponsored a ‘Concussion Summit’ in Chicago. NFL executives required all thirty-two teams send their doctors and medical personnel to the conference. NFL organizers also invited independent medical professionals to the forum. But the NFL did not invite Dr. Omalu, and when he showed up, they did not let him speak. “Why am I not invited?” Omalu asked a colleague. In the years that followed, as Omalu struggled to get any recognition at all for his discovery. He was, and still is being completely ignored by the NFL. Until the movie, he really didn’t get any recognition for the fact that, if not for his discovery, the term chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) would never have been coined or even recognized as a neurodegenerative disease.

Unable to fight the growing evidence started by Omalu, the NFL developed a strategy to buy more time and lessen the blow that has yet to come due to their skillful manipulation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement with the current players through 2020. In late 2009, the NFL gifted $1 million to Boston University to study CTE. Soon afterward, the Sports Legacy Institute, a non-profit concussion-research group co-founded by a Boston University neurosurgeon, threw the Commissioner of the NFL a party at the Boston Harbor Hotel, gave him an award and celebrated with a big cake in the shape of a football, with a brain on top made of icing. Through sponsorship, the NFL now pulled the strings on new research and the timing of the releases. They were back in control.

The NFL’s manipulation of its Collective Bargaining Agreement with the players attempts to control any new lawsuits that may arise as a result of cumulative injuries. By offering a small payment to retired players suffering from symptoms, it denies any connection between playing football and later cognitive failure. The agreement runs through the year 2020. This shows that the team owners, greedy for the usurious profits provided by their league for selling out the players — truly understand the real game being played (and it’s not football). Many retired athletes, some professional, and some who didn’t make it that far, continue to suffer at a relatively young age with an array of health issues including post-concussion symptoms, which include mental lapses, headaches, and depression; early dementia, Parkinsonism, early onset Alzheimer’s, damaged joints, chronic pain as the result of stress, recurrent injuries, overtraining, and repeated concussions. If players meet the criteria of a minimum of NFL play time, are diagnosed with one of the debilitating diseases and need therapy, the NFL pays them $88,000 per year. This is a pittance compared to the billions that the league makes in profit margins; all the while seeing the damage being done to players and deliberately torpedoing the important research that would help them.

Taking Back Control

Because of Dr. Omalu’s persistence, the NFL has been forced to acknowledge chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and the broader sports community has started to recognize the devastating effects of repeated brain injuries in all fast-paced sports, whether professional or recreational. But the fight is far from over. The global elites that include the big pharmaceutical companies and the NFL alike have no intention of having their profits interfered with. Wealth can crush anyone who does not play by their rules. Wealth is power and that power was used to eliminate Omalu from the conversation. Movie publicity has given him new voice but we likely wouldn’t have heard from him again had it not been for these exceptional and unique circumstances. Unfortunately, as history demonstrates, not all researchers who make breakthrough discoveries will ever have a blockbuster movie made about them.

The Omalu case is illustrative of what goes on behind the scenes in the world of medical research. At the very least this well-documented and publicized episode should demonstrate that allowing corporate-sponsored research to be driven by the vagaries of the marketplace has proved to be a disaster for patients who develop incurable diseases — and not just CTE. The promise of scientists in the 1960s and ’70s who predicted that major diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and other incurable brain diseases would be eradicated through corporate-sponsored research has been exposed as a lie. The major medical breakthroughs we have been waiting for surely would have already occurred, but neither the major pharmaceutical companies, nor other corporations whose revenue is affected by medical advances are interested in cures if they affect profits. Who really knows how much promising research has been scuttled by Big Pharma? Had it not been for the bright lights now shining on the NFL, they surely would have been able to subvert the breakthrough science exposed by Omalu. But the lights aren’t always shining so brightly on diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis and Rheumatoid Arthritis and physicians and researchers who have developed novel and potentially effective alternative therapies for some diseases are regularly discredited, disparaged and even ‘eliminated’ by Big Pharma through their influence of the media — and other more clandestine operatives. It has happened in hundreds of cases and this fact has been widely recognized and protested by high-level institutes such as the Mayo Clinic.

As Omalu did, scientists interested in continuing novel research that they cannot fund, must organize around a series of non-negotiable demands. We have to dismantle the array of mechanisms that the corporations use to control the direction of the research and the licensing of marginal drugs, including conflicts of interest with the FDA. These corporations lack the moral capacity to make these decisions. Technological innovation, ostensibly employed to build systems of greater use to mankind has been manipulated by elaborate bureaucratic machinery that drives corporate capitalism forward to the detriment of the millions who need cures, not more pills — and not falsely discredited scientists.

Written by Administrator

1 Comments to “A Lesson in the Corporate Sponsorship of Medical Research”

  1. Gary Woods says:

    I just saw the movie and then found this article. It puts everything into prospective for me. You are saying that big Pharma and the NFL are the same. Olamu’s case should be a warning for everyone that these giant corporations are dangerous for our health shouldn’t be allowed to conduct research where they are in financial conflict with the results. Humanitarian scientists like Olamu needs the protection that you allude. Thankyou for this article.

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