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To All Biopharmaceutical Scientists: You Are Not Disease Mongers!

To All Biopharmaceutical Scientists: You Are Not Disease Mongers!

Picture of William Heisel

I guess I should be flattered. Forbes highlighted my work in a recent piece about disease mongering. And the writer is a pretty smart guy: John LaMattina, the former president of R&D for Pfizer and now a senior partner at PureTech Ventures.

The trouble is, LaMattina doesn’t appear to have actually read my posts.

Instead, he makes the claim that advancements by pharmaceutical companies actually don’t receive enough press and that three posts I devoted to disease mongering should have instead been given over to, on the serious side, "work that the industry is doing in Alzheimer’s Disease R&D," and, on the hard-to-believe side, the fact that "baldness is an area of research that gets little attention in R&D portfolios."

LaMattina’s headline shouts "To All Biopharmaceutical Scientists: You Are Disease Mongerers!" He called me out on Twitter saying that I and writer Ray Moynihan "do a disservice when they trivialize biopharmaceutical work as ‘disease-mongering.’"

PureTech Ventures is an investment firm in startup companies, many of them pharmaceutical. It explains on its website:

We are not a venture fund or an incubator. We proactively form companies and drive them forward as the primary founder. PureTech’s mission is to give life to breakthrough technologies in order to develop the most promising innovations into cures. As an "institutional entrepreneur", PureTech proactively creates new companies through a rigorous, systematic approach.

Some of these companies are tackling cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, so one can understand why LaMattina might feel like this is research worth covering. And his company also is funding baldness research through Follica, which says it is "developing novel therapies for conditions and disorders of the hair follicle, the epicenter for the development and replenishment of human hair and skin."

It's hard to believe that pharmaceutical companies would feel like their products don't receive enough news coverage. But I take LaMattina's point that many of the scientists working in those corporate labs are doing important work. So now, let me shout at biopharmaceutical scientists, too:


Whether working solely in industry labs or in concert with academic researchers, you have made advancements in cancer, immune disorders, and diabetes. The HIV/AIDS epidemic was devastating communities – whole countries even – in the late 1980s and through the 1990s. The advent of antiretroviral therapies in and their subsequent development by pharmaceutical scientists has helped turn the tide, although there's more work to be done.

Few thought it possible to vaccinate against cancer. But then biopharmaceutical scientists built on academic research and developed a vaccine for the strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV) that cause the most cervical cancers. LaMattina’s former employer, Pfizer, makes the essential drug that those of us who type for a living have rolling around in our side cabinets: Advil. (Unless you prefer whiskey.)

I wrote a Pfizer scientist I know to ask him for thoughts on LaMattina’s critique. He was understandably reluctant to be quoted on behalf of the company, but he did say that, while drugs for erectile dysfunction and overactive bladder are marketed heavily, most of the scientists at Pfizer are focused on major health threats. He wrote me:

I got to see a patient a month or two ago who is alive due to a Pfizer oncology drug. Amazing experience. He got to see his daughters get married, which he never thought he'd see from his original diagnosis. … I guess the bottom line is what do we, as a society, think of the companies that do invest in "cosmeceuticals" or "quasi-pharma"? I don't know, I tend to think about them case by case. Baldness is a good example. Not the worst thing to happen to anyone, but one that millions would pay hundreds  -- or thousands to "fix." Not sure that's company-created as much as just wanting to look and feel young and attractive. Botox and other aesthetic treatments would fit the same category. I'm fine with people spending their own money on all of that. Not as "health care" claims though, or anything related.

If you are a private company and want to find a way to make the Bruce Willis from Pulp Fiction look like the Bruce Willis from Moonlighting, go for it! But my hope is that Bruce Willis is never featured in a marketing campagin for your product or a news story that talks about him being cured of baldness.

Do you think pharmaceutical discoveries deserve more ink than they receive? Am I wrong on disease mongering? Drop a comment below or send it to . You also can reach me via Twitter @wheisel.

Related Posts:

Complete Health Reporting: Avoid Extremes to Avoid Disease Mongering

Complete Health Reporting: Steer Clear of Disease-Mongering Quicksand

Photo credit: pawpaw67 via Flickr


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You are absolutely right william,my experience is limited to India, yes disease mongering and exploitation of fear by the dr.s who are lured by big pharma to market expensive meds.. In oncology at private centres there is no clearcut diagnosis sometimes,and expensive chemotherapy started.

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