Editor’s note: Dr. Pies’ response to this post is appended to the end of this post.
In the October 2015 issue of The Behavior Therapist (pages 206-213), Jeffrey Lacasse, PhD, and Jonathan Leo, PhD, published an article titled Antidepressants and the Chemical Imbalance Theory of Depression: A Reflection and Update on the Discourse.
In that post, I quoted a number of passages from the Behavior Therapist article, including:
“When our physicians are educating us, we prefer they not tell us any lies, white or otherwise. Unfortunately, characterizing the chemical imbalance metaphor as a ‘little white lie’ communicates a paternalistic, hierarchical approach that sounds suspiciously like the days of medicine that we thought we had left behind. It’s a ‘little white lie’ if you’re a psychiatrist; if you’re a confused, vulnerable depressed person who agrees to take an SSRI after hearing it, you might not consider it so little. After all, if your trusted physician tells you that you have a chemical imbalance in your brain that can be corrected with medication, not doing so sounds foolish, if not scary (Lacasse, 2005). How many patients with reservations about SSRIs have agreed to take medication after being told this ‘little white lie’?”
“Pies blames the drug companies for running misleading advertisements about chemical imbalance, belatedly admits he should have said something sooner, but fails to mention that he was paid to help them promote their products at the time the advertisements were running.”
On November 5, I received the following email, forwarded from Mad In America:
Message sent by: Ronald Pies MD
Message:Dear Mr. Cole:
Philip Hickey\’s blog, \”More on the Chemical Imbalance Theory\”—posted on your website—references a recent paper by Lacasse & Leo (\”Antidepressants and the Chemical Imbalance Theory of Depression\”) which contains incorrect and misleading information re: my views, as well as an unsupported claim re: supposed “conflicts of interest” Lacasse & Leo impute to me. These misstatements by Lacasse & Leo are, unfortunately, repeated in Hickey\’s blog. This is unacceptable and must be publicly corrected. In brief, Lacasse and Leo’s misrepresentations are as follows:
1. They misattribute the phrase “little white lie” to me, with regard to the so-called “chemical imbalance theory.” In reality, this unfortunate phrase was originally used by Mr. Robert Whitaker in an interview with Bruce Levine. The link is: http://brucelevine.net/psychiatry-admits-its-been-wrong-in-big-ways-but-can-it-change-a-chat-with-robert-whi/
In the article I subsequently wrote, cited by Lacasse & Leo (http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/823368), my use of that phrase was in direct reference to Whitaker’s interview and to his own choice of words. I made this clear as far back as April, 2014, in a comment I posted beneath my Medscape article (available online). Careful scholars would surely have observed this and not falsely attributed Whitaker\’s phrase to me. The Medscape article has since been corrected.
2. Citing information properly disclosed by me over a decade ago, Lacasse & Leo allege that I was “paid to help [pharmaceutical companies] promote their products…” This is categorically false. The allegation by Lacasse & Leo was not based on any direct knowledge of my professional or contractual arrangements dating back to 2003. Never, at any time, have I accepted any monies from pharmaceutical companies (or anyone else) with the intent or purpose of promoting their products. Nor have I ever had any ongoing financial relationships with any pharmaceutical companies.
A detailed rejoinder to Lacasse & Leo will appear in the winter issue of \”The Behavior Therapist,\” where the Lacasse & Leo article originally appeared. However, I respectfully request that you run a correction on your website as soon as possible; e.g., by posting this communication. I consider this a matter that impinges on my professional reputation, and I reserve all rights in pursuit of a just resolution.
Ronald Pies MD
Professor of Psychiatry
. . . . .
In his email, Dr. Pies raises two objections. Firstly, he contends that the phrase “little white lie” as applied to the chemical imbalance theory was misattributed to him, on the grounds that the phrase had been used earlier by Robert Whitaker. Secondly, he states that he has never accepted payment from pharmaceutical companies with the intent or purpose of promoting their products.
The Little White Lie
On April 15, 2014, Dr. Pies published an article – Nuances, Narratives, and the ‘Chemical Imbalance’ Debate in Psychiatry – on Medscape.
The third paragraph of this article reads:
“Now, if you were to give credence to a recent online polemic posing as investigative journalism1, you would probably choose the first or second statement. In the narrative of the antipsychiatry movement, a monolithic entity called ‘Psychiatry’ has deliberately misled the public as to the causes of mental illness, by failing to debunk the chemical imbalance hypothesis. Indeed, this narrative insists that, by promoting this little white lie, psychiatry betrayed the public trust and made it seem as if psychiatrists had magic bullets for psychiatric disorders. (Lurking in the back-story, of course, is Big Pharma, said to be in cahoots with Psychiatry so as to sell more drugs).”
The “polemic posing as investigative journalism” (Ref #1) is an ungracious, and, in my view, unwarrantedly cynical, reference to Bruce Levine’s March 5 2014, interview with Robert Whitaker. In that interview, Robert is quoted as saying:
“By doing so [promoting the chemical imbalance theory], psychiatry allowed a ‘little white lie’ to take hold in the public mind, which helped sell drugs and of course made it seem that psychiatry had magic bullets for psychiatric disorders. That is an astonishing betrayal of the trust that the public puts in a medical discipline; we don’t expect to be misled in such a basic way.”
It is obvious in this quote, and from the surrounding text, that Robert is using the term “little white lie” as an understatement. This is clear from the next sentence: “…an astonishing betrayal of the trust that the public puts in a medical discipline…”. It is also noteworthy that the phrase is inside quotation marks, which are often used to negate the substance of the enclosed material.
But in Dr. Pies’ statement in the Medscape article, there is nothing to suggest that understatement was intended, and nothing to suggest that the sentiment entailed was anything other than Dr. Pies’ own position.
Specifically, he did not place the phrase inside quotation marks. And more generally, characterizing the chemical imbalance theory as a “little white lie” is consistent with the psychiatry-exculpating tone of Dr. Pies’ piece. It is also consistent with the tone of other articles that Dr. Pies has written. For instance, in Doctor, Is My Mood Disorder Due to a Chemical Imbalance? (2011), Dr. Pies wrote:
“Many patients who suffer from severe depression or anxiety or psychosis tend to blame themselves for the problem. They have often been told by family members that they are “weak-willed” or “just making excuses” when they get sick, and that they would be fine if they just picked themselves up by those proverbial bootstraps. They are often made to feel guilty for using a medication to help with their mood swings or depressive bouts.…So, some doctors believe that they will help the patient feel less blameworthy by telling them, ‘you have a chemical imbalance causing your problem.'”
A little white lie is an inconsequential falsehood, told to avoid causing embarrassment or hurt. And this is precisely how Dr. Pies is presenting the chemical imbalance hoax in the passage quoted above: a benign falsehood that will “help the patient feel less blameworthy”.
So, those of us reading Dr. Pies’ “Nuances…” article had every reason to read his description of the chemical imbalance theory as a little white lie, as his own position, and absolutely no reason to infer anything to the contrary.
In addition to this, Dr. Pies himself seems knowledgeable of these matters, and skilled in navigating these kinds of linguistic intricacies. For instance, in the “Nuances…” article, Dr. Pies states:
“In the narrative of the anti-psychiatry movement, a monolithic entity called ‘Psychiatry’ has deliberately misled the public as to the causes of mental illness, by failing to debunk the chemical imbalance hypothesis.”
Here, Dr. Pies has made it perfectly clear that the characterization of psychiatry as a “monolithic entity” is not his position, but rather that of the antipsychiatry movement.
But no such construction is attached to his use of the phrase “little white lie”.
For Dr. Pies to contend that Drs. Lacasse and Leo misattributed the phrase to him is inaccurate and unreasonable. The notion that “careful scholars” would have searched through the comments string and found Dr. Pies’ clarification is not convincing. If Dr. Pies was aware that there was a misleading phrase in the article, he should have corrected it, not relied on his readers to search through a comments string looking for a correction, of whose existence they had no inkling. The responsibility for the miscommunication sits squarely on his own shoulders.
And there are indications that Dr. Pies clearly understands this. The “Nuances…” article which appeared in Medscape on April 15 2014, had been published earlier, on March 11, 2014, in Psychiatric Times. But a month later, on April 11, it was updated on that site. In the later version, the phrase “little white lie” has been changed to “simplistic notion”. My interpretation of this at the time was that Dr. Pies had recognized that his earlier statement had been woefully inaccurate, and frankly insulting to people who had been harmed by the falsehood in question, so he made the change. For some reason, a similar change was not made in the Medscape article until about two weeks ago, when its wording was amended to “simplistic formulation.” If Dr. Pies didn’t believe that he had misexpressed himself, why did he feel the need to make these amendments?
So, to summarize the “little white lie” issue:
- In the original Psychiatric Times and Medscape articles, Dr. Pies characterized the spurious chemical imbalance theory as “this little while lie”. There was nothing in the wording of this statement to suggest that this was anything other than his own position.
- At some point in the next few weeks, Dr. Pies realized that his statement was inaccurate, or that he had misexpressed himself, and made an appropriate correction in the Psychiatric Times article, but not in the Medscape piece.
- In October 2015, Drs. Lacasse and Leo, accurately and appropriately, attributed the “little white lie” phrase in the Medscape article to Dr. Pies.
- Sometime in the last two weeks, the Medscape article was amended to read “simplistic formulation”.
- On November 4, 2015, Dr. Pies unjustly accused Drs. Lacasse and Leo of misattributing the phrase to him.
. . . . .
Conflicts of Interest
Here’s the entire passage from the Behavior Therapist article:
“Thus, while we don’t know why Ronald Pies himself didn’t speak out on the chemical imbalance issue decades ago, readers should be aware of his past financial relationship with pharmaceutical companies. He sounds vaguely critical of the drug industry in his recent articles and never discloses any history of financial conflicts-of-interest. However, Pies has received funding from GlaxoSmithKline, Abbot Laboratories, and Jannsen Pharmaceuticals—the makers of Paxil, Wellbutrin, Lamictal, Depakote, and Risperdal (Chaudron & Pies, 2003; Pies & Rogers, 2005). For years, Paxil and Wellbutrin were advertised as correcting a chemical imbalance in the brain. These three companies have recently been fined a combined $6.7 billion for illegal marketing of their products.1 Pies has also consulted for ApotheCom, a ‘Medical Communications Agency’ that ‘provides services to support the commercialization of new products…[including]….publications planning, [and] promotional communications…’ (Pharma Voice Marketplace, 2015). While useful context, this isn’t uncommon among academic psychiatrists, and some would say it was par for the course in the 2000s. However, in a public forum, more transparency is preferable. Pies blames the drug companies for running misleading advertisements about chemical imbalance, belatedly admits he should have said something sooner, but fails to mention that he was paid to help them promote their products at the time the advertisements were running.
It’s important to realize that organized psychiatry doesn’t always remain silent, such as when the interests of psychiatric prescribers and pharmaceutical companies converge. In the mid-2000s, press releases endorsed by some of the most prominent psychiatrists in the United States were issued objecting to the FDA black box warning on SSRIs (e.g., American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, 2006; Healy, 2012). The APA also issued a press release defending antidepressants (APA, 2004; Healy, 2006). This was at a time when the chemical imbalance metaphor was omnipresent in direct-to-consumer advertising. While that was seen as a pressing issue to present to the public, misleading messages on chemical imbalance were not.” (p 209)
Footnote 1 reads:
“We want to be clear that we are not accusing Ronald Pies of anything. Conflicts-of-interest are routine in academic psychiatry and many of the major pharmaceutical companies have been fined in the recent past. We do believe that readers deserve to know of his past financial relationships with the drug companies that promoted their products as correcting a chemical imbalance. The details of these financial relationships are not publicly available.”
I think the above text is clear, and speaks for itself. It is noteworthy that Drs. Lacasse and Leo take specific pains to protect Dr. Pies from any kind of unjust criticism (“…we are not accusing Ronald Pies of anything.”) It is also noteworthy that in his email Dr. Pies does not deny that he has consulted for ApotheCom. Nor does he deny that he received payment for such consultations. Nor does he deny that ApotheCom’s business is providing “services to support the commercialization of new products”. Nor does he deny that he received payments from the other drug companies named. Nor does he deny that these other companies promoted the spurious chemical imbalance theory in their ads.
Dr. Pies simply asserts that he has never accepted payments from pharmaceutical companies with the intent or purpose of promoting their products, and that he has never had ongoing financial relationships with any pharmaceutical company. This is an unusual rebuttal, in that Drs. Lacasse and Leo never accused him of either of these activities. I’ll discuss this in more detail later.
In the interests of clarity, I should point out at this stage in the discussion that the terms “promote” and “promotion” are value-neutral, and subject to degrees. A person may promote a good thing (e.g. world peace), or a bad thing (e.g. racial hatred), and may promote something minimally or avidly. In addition, a person might promote something for payment, or gratuitously.
So, if a psychiatrist were to mention to a colleague, in the course of a private conversation, that he finds such and such a drug helpful in alleviating such and such a problem, he has, in effect, promoted the drug in question. And, he, presumably, would consider this promotion to be a good thing. Similarly, if a pharmaceutical company launches a massive advertizing campaign on a particular drug, this would also be considered a promotion of the product in question, and, if it resulted in an increase in sales, would be considered a good thing by the company in question.
Similarly, if a psychiatrist writes and publishes an opinion piece in which a certain drug is mentioned favorably, this is a promotion. In fact, even a relatively neutral mention of a drug by an eminent psychiatrist could be construed as a promotion, along the lines of incidental placement of commercial products in movies.
Dr. Pies also asserts that the “allegation by Lacasse and Leo was not based on any direct knowledge” of his professional or contractual arrangements dating back to 2003. And he indicated no intentions to make any such information public.
Here, however, are some facts that are in the public domain, interspersed with my comments and reflections.
1. In July 2002, Dr. Pies published The ‘softer’ end of the bipolar spectrum in the Journal of Psychiatric Practice. He acknowledges that the article is “supported by an unrestricted grant from GlaxoSmithKline.” The article is a literature review/opinion piece. Here’s the abstract:
“The prevalence and diversity of bipolar disorder may be under-appreciated. Recent data suggest that when clinicians look beyond strict DSM-IV criteria for bipolar disorder, we find that as many as 5%-7% of the general public may suffer from some form of ‘bipolar spectrum disorder.’ At the same time, the comorbidity between bipolar disorder and other psychiatric conditions may create understandable confusion in diagnosis and treatment. Recognition of bipolar depression and the ‘soft end’ of the bipolar spectrum demands not only the identification of the hallmarks of bipolarity, but a heightened awareness of the problems of missed diagnosis and inappropriate treatment. By attending to some key historical and clinical clues, the psychiatrist is more likely to detect bipolar spectrum disorder and provide appropriate treatment for it.” [Emphasis added]
And here’s a quote from the “Treatment Recommendations and Conclusions” section:
“In the mean time, recent evidence suggests that lithium is at least moderately effective in many depressed bipolar patients,41 and that the anticonvulsant lamotrigine may be a feasible alternative to antidepressants in some depressed bipolar patients.42” [Emphasis added]
Lamotrigine (Lamictal) is an anticonvulsant made by GlaxoSmithKline.
Reference 42, on which Dr. Pies’ recommendation is reliant, is Calabrese JR, Bowden, CL, et al. A double-blind, placebo-controlled study of lamotrigine monotherapy in outpatients with bipolar I depression, J Clin Psychiatry 1999. This study was funded by Glaxo Wellcome, which in January 2000 merged with SmithKline Beecham to become GlaxoSmithKline. Three of the authors, John Ascher, MD, Eileen Monaghan, and David Rudd, PharmD, were GW employees. In addition, the authors thank Gary Evoniuk, PhD, and Elizabeth Field, PhD for “editorial assistance with the manuscript.” Dr. Evoniuk was, and incidentally still is, an employee of GSK. According to her bio, Dr. Field worked for GSK from 1989 to 2001, and with astonishing candor, describes her work there as follows:
“I managed an international department of 24 medical publication professionals who wrote/edited manuscripts for peer-reviewed journals describing the results of GSK-sponsored clinical trials in conjunction with the author/investigators. This group supported almost all products in development and marketed by GSK” [Emphasis added]
So it is clear that GSK had a very considerable input into the wording and presentation of the Dr. Calabrese et al article. The conclusion of the study was: “Lamotrigine monotherapy is an effective and well-tolerated treatment for bipolar depression.”
So essentially what we’ve got here is: Glaxo Wellcome funds, and is heavily involved in the production of, a 1999 study which finds in favor of its drug lamotrigine (Lamictal). And in 2002, GSK contracts with Dr. Pies to write an article on the “bipolar spectrum,” in which Dr. Pies, largely on the basis of Drs. Calabrese’s and Bowden’s findings, recommends the drug, albeit with a measure of caution, for “some depressed bipolar patients.”
But the plot thickens, for this is the same Dr. Calabrese who was described in United States vs. GSK (2012) as “…GSK’s greatest proponent for the use of Lamictal in the treatment of bipolar disorder…” Dr. Bowden is also mentioned frequently in the same lawsuit.
To provide context for this discussion, I have attached to this post – as Appendix A – a copy of the Lamictal section of the GSK lawsuit. It’s a sordid tale, which describes in close detail how GSK illegally and vigorously promoted Lamictal as a “treatment for bipolar disorder.” The outcome of this lawsuit was that GSK was fined $3 billion, the largest fine for activity of its sort in American history.
I need to emphasize that my introduction of the GSK lawsuit material is to provide context. Dr. Pies is not named in the complaint, and there is no suggestion from any source that he was complicit in GSK’s illegal activities. Nor am I suggesting that Dr. Pies was complicit in the activities of Drs. Calabrese and Bowden. But Dr. Pies did lend credence to their work, by quoting them, and by relying on their findings, even though the extensive GSK involvement in the creation of their report was, and still is, public information.
There are two paragraphs in the United States vs. GSK complaint that have particular relevance.
“471. Just as troublesome as the Lit Alerts and Faxbacks, were the numerous studies by Calabrese, distributed by GSK, which suggest the efficacy and use of Lamictal in patients with bipolar II.” [Emphasis added]
In other words, the distribution of the Calabrese studies was an integral part of the illegal promotion of Lamictal for bipolar disorder. And Dr. Pies, by publicizing, and lending credence to, these studies, became a significant, though unwitting, link in this distribution chain.
Paragraph 474 is also important.
“474. GSK’s extremely aggressive off-label campaign for Lamictal included spending large sums of money in the form of unrestricted grants, membership on advisory boards and speaker’s fees on physicians and researchers who served as ‘national thought leaders.’ As with campaigns for other drugs, the campaign for the use of the drug Lamictal in the treatment of bipolar disorders began with the widespread promotion of ‘disease awareness.'” [Emphasis added]
In other words, GSK’s awarding of unrestricted grants was also an integral part of their promotional campaign, and as we shall see below, Dr. Pies was the recipient of several unrestricted grants from GSK. Additionally, Dr. Pies’ opening statement in the “Softer End” article that “… 5%–7% of the general public may suffer from some form of ‘bipolar spectrum disorder.'” sounds very like the “widespread promotion of ‘disease awareness'” mentioned in paragraph 474 above.
Given the extent and vigor of GSK’s illegal promotional campaign, it was perhaps almost inevitable that a person of Dr. Pies’ academic stature and unimpeachable reputation for personal integrity, would become a “target” for GSK’s talent scouts.
In 2008, Nassir Ghaemi, MD, et al published an article Publication Bias and the Pharmaceutical Industry: The Case of Lamotrigine in Bipolar Disorder in Medscape. The article takes to task the drug industry generally (and GSK in particular) for not publishing, and perhaps even concealing, research studies that show their products in a negative light. Dr. Ghaemi et al focus specifically on “studies with lamotrigine in bipolar disorder.” Here’s a quote from their abstract:
“In this paper, we review the case of studies with lamotrigine in bipolar disorder, describing evidence of lack of efficacy in multiple mood states outside of the primary area of efficacy (prophylaxis of mood episodes). In particular, the drug has very limited, if any, efficacy in acute bipolar depression and rapid-cycling bipolar disorder, areas in which practicing clinicians, as well as some academic leaders, have supported its use.” [Emphasis added]
Obviously I don’t know if Dr. Ghaemi et al had Dr. Pies in mind when they were writing this, but as quoted earlier, Dr. Pies had written in 2002 that “recent evidence suggests that…lamotrigine may be a feasible alternative to antidepressants in some depressed bipolar patients.”
. . . . .
In passing, I should probably comment on the term “unrestricted grant.” Strictly speaking, this means that the money is given with no strings attached. The grantee is assured the freedom to express and publish his views with no pressure from the grantor. In practice, there often are pressures, subtle and otherwise. Here’s what the distinguished Professor Emeritus of Medicine at UCLA, Jerome Hoffman, MD, wrote on this matter on June 12, 2013, in a guest post on the blog site Common Sense Family Doctor:
“Excuse me, but Pharma doesn’t throw away its money. There is no such thing as an unrestricted grant; if it didn’t buy value in return, why would they pay for it? And if the author didn’t write something they like to read, do you think he’d ever get another unrestricted grant?”
And here’s what the highly-respected psychiatrist Daniel Carlat, MD, wrote on June 17, 2007:
“While the term ‘unrestricted’ implies that the company had no strings attached to its money, the reality is that any physician or MECC (medical education communication company) who receives drug company funding knows that their lecture or article will be closely perused by those with the cash, and that future ‘gigs’ will be dependent on whether the company feels their product is shown in a favorable light.”
As we will see later, Dr. Pies has received several unrestricted grants from GSK.
. . . . .
2. In December 2002, Dr. Pies wrote an opinion piece: Combining lithium and anticonvulsants in bipolar disorder: a review, for the Annals of Clinical Psychiatry. The article was funded “by an unrestricted grant from GlaxoSmithKline.” Here’s a quote from the abstract:
“More recent reports suggest that lithium may be safely and effectively combined with lamotrigine, and perhaps with topiramate, although controlled studies are required.” [Emphasis added]
Here are some quotes from the body of the article:
“Since 1994, there have been at least 21 open-label, uncontrolled case reports or studies examining lamotrigine in bipolar disorder, with a cumulative control group of over 300 patients (26,27). While a review of this literature is beyond the scope of the present paper, a few points are worth noting. In their own review of 14 open clinical reports involving 207 patients with bipolar disorder (66 with rapid cycling), Calabrese et al. (26) concluded that lamotrigine demonstrated moderate-to-marked efficacy in depression, hypomania, and mixed states; however, efficacy in hospitalized manic patients was not clearly shown, and many of these studies used lamotrigine as add-on (adjunctive) therapy. In the Bowden et al. study (27), lamotrigine was evaluated in patients with refractory bipolar disorder, either as monotherapy (n = 15) or as add-on therapy (n = 60). A total of 23 subjects (31 %) were taking lithium at the initiation of the study; three additional patients received lithium later in the study. Overall, both rapid-cycling and nonrapid-cycling patients experienced symptom reduction and functional improvement over the course of 48 weeks.” [Emphasis added]
Reference 27 is a Glaxo Wellcome-funded study by Drs. Bowden, Calabrese, et al. Four of the authors were GW employees.
Here are some more quotes from Dr. Pies’ article:
“The patient populations in open studies of lamotrigine have been quite heterogeneous, and lamotrigine has been used as both add-on and monotherapy. These studies have suggested lamotrigine’s efficacy in depressed, hypomanic, and mixed bipolar patients.” [Emphasis added]
“Lamotrigine monotherapy is generally well tolerated.” [Emphasis added]
“From the standpoint of pharmacokinetic interactions, the combination of lamotrigine and lithium appears to pose no significant problems. Specifically, administering lamotrigine with lithium does not significantly alter the pharmacokinetics of lithium (35). Preliminary indications indicate that the combination of lamotrigine and lithium is well tolerated in most patients.” [Emphasis added]
“The addition of lamotrigine to lithium seems most useful for patients refractory to lithium alone who show prominent depressive symptoms and/or rapid cycling.”
But a product can also be promoted by criticizing the competition, in this case, divalproex, (Depakote):
“A larger cohort study of lithium-divalproex [Depakote]combination has yielded mixed results. Specifically, in an open study, Calabrese et al(19) examined large cohorts of rapid-cycling bipolar patients ( N = 271), over a 6-month study period. Of the total group, 215 had comorbid alcohol or drug abuse, 56 did not. In the group as a whole, the combination of lithium and divalproex was associated with marked acute and continued antimanic efficacy in 85% of patients and marked antidepressant efficacy in 60%. However, only one half of patients experienced bimodal mood stabilization. Premature discontinuation of treatment was disproportionately associated with refractory depression compared with refractory hypomania/mania/mixed states ( n = 41 vs 14). Comorbid alcohol/substance abuse did not directly affect response rates in compliant patients, but did worsen prognosis by increasing rates of poor compliance. The majority of patients receiving lithium/divalproex therapy who required additional treatment were depressed. Indeed, at the time of presentation, most patients with rapid-cycling bipolar disorder are in the depressed phase of illness, which appears to be the “hallmark” of rapid cycling (19). Given this observation, and that antidepressant use has been discouraged in rapid cyclers, the authors note the pressing need for a pharmacotherapy that markedly reduces depressive symptoms without provoking ‘switching’ or cycle acceleration.” [Emphasis added]
Here again, note that reference 19 which Dr. Pies is citing is a study conducted by Dr. Calabrese, Bowden, et al in 2001, and was funded by Glaxo Wellcome and NIMH.
. . . . .
3. In October 2002, Dr. Pies published Have we undersold lithium for bipolar disorder? as an editorial in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology. The editorial was funded by an unrestricted grant from GSK. Here’s a quote from the conclusion:
“Lamotrigine looks very promising for bipolar depression and prophylaxis, but more studies are needed to define and solidify its role. The same goes for topiramate. Olanzapine, while useful in mania and perhaps as an adjunctive agent in bipolar depression, has yet to prove itself as monotherapy in bipolar prophylaxis. Furthermore, concerns about the neuroendocrine effects of valproate and olanzapine—both of which have FDA labeling in bipolar disorder—must also give us pause. As for gabapentin, there are still no randomized, controlled studies of monotherapy showing this agent to be effective in any type or phase of bipolar disorder.” [Emphasis added]
Here’s another quote from the body of the editorial:
“Recently, Calbrese et al.13 presented data from two large, double-blind, placebo-controlled, studies comparing lamotrigine and lithium in the maintenance treatment of bipolar I disorder. While both active agents delayed time to ‘any’ bipolar event, a separate analysis (manic/hypomanic/mixed vs. depressive events) found that lamotrigine had more robust effects than lithium in delaying onset of depressive episodes.” [Emphasis added]
Reference 13 is to: Calabrese JR, Bowden CL, et al. Lamotrigine or lithium in the maintenance treatment of bipolar I disorder [abstract NR 236]. Presented at the American Psychiatric Association Annual Meeting, Philadelphia, PA, 2002.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
4. In February 2006, Dr. Pies and Patricia Marken, PharmD, co-authored an opinion piece Emerging Treatments for Bipolar Disorder: Safety and Adverse Effect Profiles in the Annals of Pharmacotherapy. The article was “supported by an unrestricted grant from GlaxoSmithKline.” Here are the authors’ conclusions:
“Pending the results of ongoing controlled studies, several emerging agents may be useful additions to the therapeutic arsenal for BPD.” [bipolar disorder]
And here are some quotes from the body of the paper:
“Lamotrigine [Lamictal] is the only newer AED [anti-epileptic drug] with randomized, placebo-controlled data supporting its use as maintenance treatment in BPD.” [Emphasis added]
“Lamotrigine is the most studied of all emerging treatments for bipolar maintenance.72 It appears to be more useful in bipolar depression than in mania.72” [Emphasis added]
“Lamotrigine was well tolerated, with an adverse event profile similar to that of placebo. Lamotrigine did not appear to induce mania and was not associated with sexual adverse effects,79 weight gain,80 or withdrawal symptoms.79” [Emphasis added]
Reference 72 is to a study by Drs. Bowden, Calabrese et al, 2003. It was funded by GSK. Four of the authors were GSK employees, and a further five GSK employees are acknowledged for assistance “in the preparation of this article.”
Reference 79 is to Bowden et al, 2004. Three of the six authors were GSK employees.
And at the end of the Drs. Pies and Marken article (before the references) it states: “We gratefully acknowledge Drs. Jacqui Brooks MBBCh MRC Psych and Laurie Barclay MD for their contributions during the preparation of this manuscript.” No information is provided as to Dr. Brooks’ or Dr. Barclay’s affiliations, or who was paying for their contribution. But Dr. Brooks’ bio is online, and according to this, she is currently Senior Vice President Medical Strategy at RMEI [Robert Michael Educational Institute].
Dr. Brooks’ bio also states:
“Seasoned healthcare executive with strong blend of clinical (trained psychiatrist) and strategic leadership accomplishments. Documented capacity to analyze evolving environments, provide strategic direction, and successfully lead teams in developing innovative, high-quality products and brand strategies. Proven success in business growth and development in the medical communications environment.” [Emphasis added]
There is no indication in Dr. Brooks’ bio that she ever worked as a psychiatrist. Her employment history shows that from 2002 to 2005, she was working for ApotheCom Associates as VP Scientific Affairs, Senior Medical Director. ApotheCom describes itself as “…a Global Medical Communications Powerhouse…” PharmaVoice provides the following description:
“ApotheCom provides services to support the commercialization of new products at a global level as well as promotional programs for the US market. Services include thought-leader optimization, publications planning, promotional communications and education programming.”
Drs. Pies’ and Marken’s “Emerging Treatments…” article was published on January 10, 2006, so was probably developed during 2005, and it seems likely that Dr. Brooks’ contribution to the manuscript was in her capacity as an ApotheCom employee. I have no way of knowing who was paying for ApotheCom’s services with regards to this paper, but it is in the public domain that in 2002, GSK made an educational grant to ApotheCom Associates for an article by Robert Hirschfield, MD.
Nor have I any information as to what kind of contribution Dr. Brooks might have made to the manuscript in question. But her career and bio summary suggest that it might have been more in the area of “brand strategies” and “business growth” than psychiatric technicalities. Why would an experienced and eminent psychiatrist-writer, like Dr. Pies, need help with a manuscript on the treatment of bipolar disorder from a “seasoned healthcare executive”, employed by a company that specializes in thought-leader optimization, publications planning, promotional communications and educational programming? It is, I think, particularly noteworthy, that in the acknowledgement of Dr. Brooks’ contribution to “the preparation of the manuscript”, no information is provided concerning her affiliations, or who was paying for her services. This, I suggest, constitutes, at a minimum, incomplete disclosure.
I was unable to find any information on Laurie Barclay, MD.
. . . . .
5. In August 2006, Dr. Pies and D.F. MacKinnon, MD, published: Affective instability as rapid cycling: theoretical and clinical implications for borderline personality and bipolar spectrum disorders in the journal Bipolar Disorders. The article, which is a literature review/opinion piece, was “Supported by an unrestricted grant from GlaxoSmithKline.”
Here are the article’s conclusions:
“The same mechanism may drive both the rapid mood switching in some forms of bipolar disorder and the affective instability of borderline personality disorder and may even be rooted in the same genetic etiology. While continued clinical investigation of the use of anticonvulsants in borderline personality disorder is needed, anticonvulsants may be useful in the treatment of this condition, combined with appropriate psychotherapy.” [Emphasis added]
Note that lamotrigine (Lamictal) is an anticonvulsant.
And here are some interesting quotes from the article:
“To our knowledge, there are only two randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies of anticonvulsants in well-defined rapid cycling populations, both by the same group, and only one currently in the literature (59). In the published study, 182 rapid cycling patients were randomized to lamotrigine monotherapy or placebo. The study found that 41% of lamotrigine-treated versus 26% of placebo-treated patients were stable without relapse during 6 months of monotherapy. Patients with rapid cycling bipolar II disorder consistently experienced more improvement than did bipolar I patients. Most patients who were assigned to double-blind treatment were in the midst of a depressive episode, suggesting antidepressant effects of lamotrigine in bipolar disorder, consistent with the results of a separate, open-label trial of lamotrigine versus lithium in rapid cycling patients (60).” [Emphasis added]
Reference 59 is to a 2000 Calabrese, JR, Bowden, CL et al study funded by Glaxo Wellcome. Four of the authors were GW employees, and the authors acknowledge assistance from Gary Evoniuk, PhD and Tracey Fine, MSc “in the preparation” of the article. Both Dr. Evoniuk and Ms. Fine were GW employees at the time this study was conducted. Ms. Fine’s position was Medical Publications Specialist.
Here’s another quote from Drs. Pies’ and MacKinnon’s opinion piece:
“Preliminary data suggest that lamotrigine may also have beneﬁts in borderline personality disorder, with or without comorbid bipolar disorder. In an open case series of eight medication-refractory borderline personality disorder patients without concurrent major mood disorders, lamotrigine produced sustained remission in half of those who completed the trial, with notable benefit against impulsive sexual, drug-taking, and suicidal behaviors.(69)” [Emphasis added]
Reference 69 is to: Pinto OC and Akiskal HS, 1998 which was funded by Glaxo Wellcome.
Here are more quotes from the Drs. Pies and MacKinnon opinion piece:
“Randomized, double-blind, controlled studies using lamotrigine appear warranted in this population; however, until these are completed, the utility of lamotrigine in borderline patients remains uncertain. Nevertheless, one can conclude from the juxta-position of these studies of anticonvulsants in rapid cycling bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder that at least some anticonvulsants are effective in alleviating not only the affective instability common to both conditions, but also speciﬁc measures of what have heretofore been considered ﬁxed traits among borderline patients.” [Emphasis added]
Note how the initial note of skepticism pending the completion of randomized controlled trials is effectively neutralized by the material after the words: “Nevertheless one can conclude…”. And note the strength of the assertion: One can conclude that some anticonvulsants (e.g. Lamictal?) can remediate what have previously been considered fixed traits!
“Once the biological roots of mood instability are better understood, there may be much more to contribute to the understanding of the development of our conventional notions of character and personality.”
And, presumably, more perceived justification for the use of psychiatric drugs to “fix” problems of personality and character.
“We conclude that in at least a sub-group of cases, borderline personality disorder may be an atypical presentation of a primary mood disturbance, probably related to the broad spectrum of bipolar-like disorders. It is premature to recommend anticonvulsants in the routine treatment of patients with borderline personality disorder; however, it seems that anticonvulsants may belong in the psychiatrist’s armamentarium for treatment of this condition.”
Here again, note how the appropriate cautionary lead-in is neutralized by the statement after the word “however”. The suggestion that anticonvulsants belong in a psychiatrist’s “armamentarium” clearly entails the notion that these products should be used in the “treatment” of “borderline personality disorder”.
And as mentioned before, a drug can be promoted by knocking the opposition, in this case divalproex (Depakote).
“The second randomized, double-blind, controlled study (61) involved a 20-month, parallel group comparison of 60 patients with a history of recent rapid cycling bipolar I or II disorder. Patients were randomized to lithium or divalproex monotherapy in a balanced design after stratification for bipolar type I and II. For subjects on either lithium or divalproex, about half suffered a relapse: a third into depression, and one-fifth into mania or hypomania. Although clearly better than placebo, it appears there was no benefit of divalproex versus lithium.”
Reference 61 is to a study by Dr. Calabrese, et al. The study was funded by the NIMH and the Stanley Medical Research Institute.
. . . . .
I don’t think there can be any doubt, that in the five papers discussed above, Dr. Pies and his various co-authors did make numerous favorable mentions of the drug lamotrigine, and that the articles were funded by grants from GSK.
Dr. Pies could, of course, respond to all this by stating that he helped promote Lamictal on its merits alone, and that this promotion had nothing to do with the funding and/or manuscript assistance that he coincidentally received from the manufacturer of this product (GlaxoSmithKline). And he could contend that he cited the studies by Drs. Calabrese and Bowden purely on their merits. And all of this could well be true.
But as Dr. Pies himself wrote in a Psychiatric Times article – The Age of Conflicts—of Interest – on August 1, 2008:
“…the physician or researcher may not even be aware of his real motivation. We are all quite capable of rationalizing our own self-interest in the name of the patient’s well-being,’ ‘the need for the latest technology,’ and so on.”
Dr. Pies could also argue that in the above examples, I have cherry-picked the quotes, and that his treatment of these topics is more balanced than I have portrayed. And indeed, there would be an inevitable measure of truth to this contention. Obviously I can’t quote the articles in their entirety, and Dr. Pies does sometimes mention drawbacks in the sponsor’s drug, and positive aspects of a competitor’s product. But I have tried to be fair, by selecting quotes that convey the general tone of each piece with regards to lamotrigine, and, I encourage readers to consult the articles in question, and decide this matter for themselves.
Dr. Pies could certainly quibble over any particular quote – or even over any particular paper – as to whether it constitutes promotion of a pharma product. But of greater importance is the cumulative effect of the multiple passages quoted above in the context provided by the GSK lawsuit complaint and the multiple GSK-sponsored studies. In this post I have discussed and quoted from five opinion pieces, authored or co-authored by Dr. Pies. All of the articles were funded by GSK, and all refer to studies conducted by Dr. Calabrese et al. And remember, Dr. Calabrese is described in the GSK lawsuit as “…GSK’s greatest proponent for the use of Lamictal in the treatment of bipolar disorder…”
In my view, Dr. Pies’ statements in the various articles would appear, to an impartial reader, as recommendations or promotions of lamotrigine. And it is worth pointing out that I am neither particularly skilled, nor particularly systematic, in conducting literature searches. It is entirely possible that a more competent searcher would uncover a great deal more material of a comparable nature. And it also needs to be borne in mind that I have focused on only one drug – Lamictal. A search of Dr. Pies’ writings concerning other pharma products could conceivably reveal similar complications. I did, for instance, come across a 2005 article written by Dr. Pies and Winkelman which stressed the efficacy of the sleeping pill eszopiclone (Lunesta), manufactured by Sepracor, now Sunovion.
This reported efficacy was based on Ref # 146, a 2003 study by Andrew Krystal, MD et al. The Krystal et al study concluded:
“Throughout 6 months, eszopiclone improved all of the components of insomnia as defined by DSM-IV, including patient ratings of daytime function. This placebo-controlled study of eszopiclone provides compelling evidence that long-term pharmacologic treatment of insomnia is efficacious.”
There were seven authors of this study. Three of the authors are listed as “consultants, investigators and advisory board members to Sepracor.” A fourth author is listed as a Sepracor consultant. And the remaining three authors were Sepracor employees.
In their opinion piece, Drs. Pies and Winkelman did not point out that the Krystal et al study was largely a Sepracor in-house project. Nor did they disclose the funding source (if any) for their opinion piece, but in their acknowledgement section, they wrote:
“The authors would like to acknowledge Sepracor Inc. for its assistance in the preparation of this manuscript.”
I have no way of knowing what this assistance entailed, but it does imply that Sepracor did – at the very least – have some collaborative input in the wording of the article. It seems unlikely that any such input would work to the detriment of their product. Why would an eminent psychiatrist of Dr. Pies’ stature need help from a pharmaceutical company to write an opinion piece on the treatment of insomnia? What kind of help did Sepracor provide?
. . . . .
It also needs to be stressed that, as far as I know, Dr. Pies has done nothing wrong, in any formal sense of the term. He has accepted grant money from pharmaceutical companies to write opinion pieces on various psychiatric topics, and if he came down in favor of the grantor’s product, there are no definite indications that his motivations were anything but pure. It also needs to be stated that Dr. Pies is a prolific writer, and that the articles cited above represent only a tiny fraction of his published work. It is possible that a more comprehensive review of his writing over the period in question would show that these kind of industry-sponsored opinion pieces constituted a small fraction of his overall output.
A further question in all of this is why Dr. Pies should be so upset at the suggestion that he had received payment to write articles that helped promote psychiatric drugs. If Dr. Pies believes that the drugs are efficacious and generally benign, why shouldn’t he help promote them, and why shouldn’t he be afforded reasonable compensation for this activity, particularly when he discloses these arrangements in the papers. Why should the acceptance of payments in these matters have any bearing on his professional reputation?
But over-riding all of this, is the obvious fact that Dr. Pies has mis-read the phrase “…he was paid to help promote their products…” Specifically, he has apparently formed the belief that the phrase purports to describe his motivation in these transactions. In fact, the use of the passive voice (he was paid) makes it clear that it is the payer’s motivation that is the matter of focus, not the payee’s.
To clarify the distinction, compare the two statements:
He was paid to help promote the drugs.
He accepted payment to help promote the drugs.
The first statement clearly entails the notion that the payers were paying the individual with the intention – and presumably expectation – that he would help promote the drugs. The statement tells us nothing about the payee’s intentions, or even his awareness, of the payer’s intentions. The second statement, by contrast, clearly purports to describe the payee’s motivation, but Drs. Lacasse and Leo made no statement of that kind.
There is a perfect parallel to this in the drug industry’s widespread use of “thought leaders” to promote their products. This particular hoax was thoroughly explained by Daniel Carlat, MD, in his 2010 book “Unhinged.” Here’s how it worked:
A drug rep would approach a psychiatrist and tell him that he – the psychiatrist – was considered a “thought leader” or “key opinion leader” in the area, and that they would like to recruit him to give lectures and presentations to other psychiatrists on the value of a particular drug. The drug company would train the psychiatrist, and would provide slides and other teaching aids, and would pay the psychiatrist for delivering the presentation.
And this is where it gets subtle. The psychiatrist thought that the targets of these endeavors were the psychiatrists in the audience – that he was being paid to promote the drug in question to them. In reality, and this was what Dr. Carlat exposed, the lecturer-psychiatrist himself was the actual target. By getting him to extol the merits of a drug to his peers, the drug company was actually generating pressure within the lecturer to prescribe the drug more frequently himself. And the tactic was extremely successful!
So, from the psychiatrist’s point of view, the following statement would be true:
I was paid to give lectures on this drug.
But from the drug company’s point of view, the following statement was true.
We paid him so that he would prescribe this drug more often.
Obviously the psychiatrist in question would object to the latter statement, because he had no knowledge of the drug company’s motivation or tactics.
Similarly, with regards to GSK’s “unrestricted grants, there can be no doubt, given the context outlined above, that GSK was awarding these grants to help promote Lamictal. And this is the case, even though from Dr. Pies’ point of view, he was merely accepting payment from GSK to write scholarly articles.
In short, like the psychiatrists in Dr. Carlat’s account, he was systematically misled as to the real purpose of the articles.
. . . . .
It is worth remembering that this matter began with Dr. Pies’ efforts to distance psychiatry from the chemical imbalance theory of depression, and to lay the blame, or at least some of the blame, for this hoax, onto pharma commercials.
The central point of this entire issue is that at the time these deceptive commercials were running, and running very successfully, Dr. Pies was contracting with these same companies to write articles about their products, and his payments came, at least in part, from revenues generated by these very ads. Dr. Pies’ current condemnations of pharma’s past excesses would be more convincing today if he had lodged clear statements of protest at the time, or better still, if he had refused to accept their grant contracts, on the basis that the money was tainted.
One of my main purposes in writing on this website is to draw attention to psychiatry’s spurious foundations, and to its inherently destructive and disempowering “treatments.” I also critique the work of writers who seek to promote or exculpate psychiatry, including Dr. Pies.
But my critiques are always directed towards the issues, and are always directed at errors of fact or logic. In particular, I take special pains to avoid anything that could, even remotely, be construed as a personal attack, or an attack on an individual’s character. In the case of Dr. Pies, I have always afforded him the respect due to a person of his stature, and have frequently expressed the belief that his primary error is one of loyalty: that he loves his chosen profession, in the word’s of Shakespeare’s Othello, “not wisely but too well.”
I have read and re-read Dr. Pies email, and in the light of that communication, I have re-read my earlier post. But I can find nothing in that post that could reasonably be considered false, malicious, or defamatory.
But I’m also a realist, and I recognize the obvious fact that we are all capable of being biased in respect of our own writings. I am open to suggestions concerning this matter, and if Dr. Pies were to specify which statement or statements on my part have generated a sense of grievance on his, I would be happy to take another look at the document. And if, in the light of such re-examination, Dr. Pies’ expressions of concern are credibly vindicated, then I will apologize publicly, and retract the statement(s) in question.
* * * * *
Dr. Pies’ response:
Dear Mr. Cole:
I have read Dr. Philip Hickey’s 8400+ word treatise, and I have only the following to say with regard to the two key points at issue:
- Notwithstanding my omission of quotation marks in my original Medscape article — for which I take responsibility — the fact remains: I have never believed or argued that the so-called chemical imbalance theory (which was never really a theory) is merely a “little white lie.” It is that point of view—not merely typed words on the page — that has been falsely and carelessly attributed to me.
- I have never received a dime from any pharmaceutical company or private agency with any verbal or written understanding that I would “promote” (elevate, popularize, hype, etc.) a particular drug. If any of the papers I wrote or co-authored over a decade ago had the effect of putting a drug in a favorable light, it was because the best scientific evidence available at that time supported the drug’s benefit. Nothing in Philip Hickey’s belaboring of half-truths, innuendos and guilt by association demonstrates otherwise.
Ronald Pies MD
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.
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