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Wyeth Funded Med School Course Promoting Risky Drugs

Jeffrey B. Kindler, CEO of Pfizer, left, and Bernard Poussot, CEO of Wyeth, shake hands at a news conference discussing the planned merger of their companies on Jan. 26, 2009 in New York City. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)Wyeth's impending sale to Pfizer landed it in headlines nationwide today, but a little-noticed article in yesterday's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel focuses instead on ethical concerns about the company's business practices.

Between 2002 and 2008, Wyeth funded an online course promoting hormone therapy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's medical school. Thousands of doctors took the course, which was backed by a $12 million grant, reports the paper as part of its investigation into ties between doctors at the University of Wisconsin and the pharmaceutical industry.

Unsurprisingly, the course has drawn accusations that Wyeth was using UW to push its hormone therapy drugs. "It is pure, undisguised marketing," a Georgetown University doctor told the Journal Sentinel. Drug companies are "funneling money through universities for advertising and trying to disguise it as education."

According to the Journal Sentinel, the course, which is no longer offered, "touted the benefits [of hormone therapy] and downplayed its risks." The chief of the Women's Health Initiative branch of National Institutes of Health, Jacques Rossouw, reviewed the course materials and said they didn't represent the widespread views of the scientific community and weren't suitable for a medical school course. He added, "There is a history of this kind of thing from Wyeth."

The course was introduced at a time when Wyeth desperately needed a publicity boost for its hormone therapy drugs. In 2002, a high-profile hormone therapy trial was halted because researchers deemed the drugs -- both made by Wyeth -- too dangerous for the participants. According to the Journal Sentinel, researchers decided it would be "unethical" to keep giving the drugs to participants because women "who took hormone therapy drugs were at increased risk for breast cancer, heart disease, stroke and blood clots."

After the trial was halted, sales of Wyeth hormone products dropped by 65 percent, and drug companies became "very eager to keep coming up with ways to show it isn't harmful," said a professor at Stanford University’s School of Medicine.

The director of the UW course, who has her own financial ties to Wyeth, told the Journal Sentinel that "nothing in the course material was scientifically inaccurate" -- though she said "the material was presented in a 'more positive light' than she would have preferred." The dean of UW's medical school said only, "We expect all of our educational activities to follow the highest standards."

Meanwhile, if the Pfizer deal goes through, Pfizer will be inheriting around 8,700 lawsuits filed by more than 10,000 women over allegations that Wyeth's hormone drugs "caused them to develop breast cancer, stroke, ovarian cancer and heart disease." Wyeth is also under scrutiny by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), as is UW's medical school.

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