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Journalism prof. discusses book on Paxil investigation

By Sarah Gilson

Section: News

October 31, 2008

A former reporter for the Boston Globe and Miami Herald, and Pulitzer Prize nominee for investigative journalism, Prof. Alison Bass (AMST) is now a published author. Bass spoke about her new book, Side Effects: A Prosecutor, A Whistleblower and a Bestselling Antidepressant on Trial Wednesday at an event sponsored by the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism.

Bass began her talk around 6:00 that evening by briefly summarizing the events that led to her investigation into the prescription drug market. In the nineties, Bass worked as a reporter for the Boston Globe. By chance one day, she received a call from a woman by the name of Donna Howard, a.k.a the whistleblower.

Howard, an Erin Brokovich-esque woman in her own right, worked as an assistant administrator in the psychiatry department at Brown University. She told Bass she had compelling evidence to support her theory that there was a misappropriation of funds in the department dealing with the testing of pharmaceuticals, specifically Paxil, a drug in the same class as Prozac and Zoloft.

Essentially, Howard told Bass, the FDA was paying Brown University to do clinical research on Paxil in the hopes of promoting the effectiveness and safety of the drug to a younger demographic. However, Howard discovered through documentation that, in fact, the research was not being conducted and the university was keeping the money. Further, the drug had shown tendencies to generate suicidal thoughts in users, an aspect of the research that failed to be reported. Bass, referencing her reaction to Howard’s discovery, recalled thinking “this can’t be real.”

The two women met up at a Burger King, and Bass began printing articles in the Boston Globe about the claim, which was firmly supported by evidence Howard had received at Brown. Soon, Bass noted, “up and coming” prosecutor Rose Firestein got involved, and eventually it became a full out investigation.

After her explanation of the background to the story, Bass opened the floor to questioning. Questions ranged from “What else could the FDA have done?” to “Where does your story go from here?” One person inquired, “have you ever spoken at Brown University?” which elicited laughter from the crowd. Amused, Bass replied that, no, they declined her offer to speak at their bookstore.

Bass also commented that she felt that since the beginning of the Bush presidency, there was more of a focus on protecting the welfare of drug companies, instead of people. Therefore, the FDA has become more lax when it comes to the regulation of clinical trials for prescription drugs. Consequently, numerous other drugs, including the painkiller Vioxx, have been under similar investigation, as people slowly discover the potentially life-altering (and rarely mentioned) side effects of certain drugs.

The book has already received a tremendous amount of praise. The Washington Post said that “Bass’ narrative bristles with data without fraying into tedium. And she underlines the gravity of hiding patients’ injuries. Side Effects is long form journalism at its best.”

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