Calling the Kettle Black … editorial comment

by Kristin Thorson, Fibromyalgia Network Editor
Posted: February 27, 2009

If your newspaper ran the February 8th Associated Press article “Drugmakers’ push boosts ‘murky’ ailment,” implying that the drug industry has fabricated fibromyalgia in an effort to churn a profit, you have every right to be furious!1 Controversy sells, and that was what the reporter, Matthew Perrone banked on. Perrone sought out Fred Wolfe, M.D., of Wichita, KS, because he knew from the January 14, 2008 front-page article in the New York Times that Wolfe had a track record for trashing patients with fibromyalgia and big, bad pharma as well. It’s ironic, however, that Wolfe would make derogatory statements about the drug industry when he is heavily funded by six drug companies himself.

Wolfe is the director (and paid employee) of the National Data Bank for Rheumatic Diseases, a nonprofit registered as The Arthritis Research Center Foundation, Inc. Its mission is “conducting ongoing research to improve conditions for people with arthritis, fibromyalgia, lupus and other conditions.” He openly declares in his research papers, in which he is testing the effectiveness and safety of drugs for rheumatoid arthritis, that he is funded by Centocor, Aventis, Pfizer, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Amgen, and Abbott. So perhaps Wolfe’s dislike is not so much for the drug industry as it seems for fibromyalgia.

Prompted by mixed reports on increased cancer rates in people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), Wolfe conducted an observational study on the incidence of cancer in RA patients who took the tumor necrosis factor (TNF) blocking agents Enbrel (etanercept) or Remicade (infliximab).2 His findings were derived from information in the National Data Bank (NDB) and per the NDB’s agreement with Centocor, the maker of Remicade, the drug company was allowed to review Wolfe’s manuscript prior to publication. But Wolfe doesn’t just cater to Centocor. His NDB organization has similar contractual agreements with Bristol-Myers Squibb and Sanofi-Aventis.

Wolfe’s study contradicted earlier reports of increased cancer risks for RA patients taking Enbrel or Remicade. It also confirmed that TNF blocking drugs are linked to skin cancers, including potentially deadly melanomas. Instead of using his findings to alert the medical community that these drugs may pose a health hazard, Wolfe went on record with WebMD as stating: “The drugs, at this moment, don’t seem to add any risk except for skin cancer and melanoma. This is a small overall risk and I don’t think people should be concerned.” He also added that the risks did not outweigh the benefit for patients who truly need the new drugs.3

While there is no argument that people with RA deserve effective therapies, don’t you think it is odd that Wolfe is the one pushing drugs on RA patients while in the recent AP article he bashes the drug industry for fabricating fibromyalgia to boost their sales? Yet he is quoted in the AP article as saying, “I think the purpose of most pharmaceutical company efforts is to do a little disease-mongering and to have people use their drugs.” Further in the article he says, “The underlying purpose here is really marketing, and they do that by sponsoring symposia and hiring physicians to give lectures and prepare materials.” Wolfe’s negative sentiments about fibromyalgia appear clear in a February 2009 report in which he writes, “Recently, regulatory authorities have approved treatments for fibromyalgia, offering some de facto support, although no proof, for fibromyalgia as a distinct disorder.”4 However, there was a time when RA had no “proof,” but that does not mean that the patients who suffered with it years ago did not have a real disease.

It’s true that Wolfe was the lead author for the 1990 American College of Rheumatology criteria for fibromyalgia, but that was 18 years ago and much has changed.5 In 1990, the number of rheumatologists who were skeptical about the realness of fibromyalgia far outnumbered the believers. I should know, because I hosted an information booth on fibromyalgia at the annual rheumatology meetings throughout the 1990s, and in the early years I can attest to the ugly controversies surrounding this disease.

In 1994, Wolfe orchestrated a consensus conference (paid by the insurance industry) whose primary goal was to trivialize fibromyalgia and restrict patient care.6 Why he wanted to turn his back on fibromyalgia is still unknown, but his efforts failed. During the past eight years, the rheumatologists have rallied to increase the legitimacy of fibromyalgia by developing guidelines for improving the quality of research and for testing therapies to treat this patient population. Today, Wolfe and many of his colleagues don’t see eye to eye when it comes to issues concerning fibromyalgia. At age 74, he appears to get his jollies by trash-talking fibromyalgia to headline-mongering reporters.

For all of you who were subjected to the AP story, I hope my comments help you understand the nonsensical nature of the article and that you can ignore any future reports that happen to quote Wolfe. I also want to make three additional points about the AP article:

  • Although Wolfe’s own nonprofit takes money from the drug companies, this does not mean that all nonprofits and organizations that help patients must do the same to stay afloat. Fibromyalgia Network and its sister organization, the American Fibromyalgia Syndrome Association (AFSA), have never received money from the pharmaceutical industry or other companies that could bias the way these two organizations operate.
  • Daniel Clauw, M.D., of the University of Michigan, did receive a small grant award from the National Fibromyalgia Research Association (NFRA) in Salem, OR, but the NFRA should not be confused with the National Fibromyalgia Association (NFA). NFRA does not receive money from the drugmakers.
  • The article implies that Clauw’s brain imaging research, which has documented many brain processing abnormalities over the past ten years, was tainted by drug money. That simply is not true because the funding for these studies came from government grants based on the merits of his proposals. “Most of us conducting research in the field of fibromyalgia were here ten years before the drug industry even took notice of this disease,” Clauw points out.
  1. Perrone M. Associated Press © hosted by Google, Feb 8, 2009.
  2. Wolfe F, Michaud K. Arthritis Rheum 56(9):2886-2895, 2007.
  3. DeNoon DJ. WebMD Health News Aug. 29, 2007; (WebMD article).
  4. Wolfe F, Michaud K. J Rheumatol First Release Feb. 15, 2009; doi:10.3899/jrheum.080897.
  5. Wolfe F, et al. Arthritis Rheum 33(2):160-72, 1990.
  6. Wolfe F. J Rheumatol 23(3):534-9, 1996.

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