The Cancer Journal - Volume 11, Number 6 (November-December
The medico-industrial complex - some seldom asked questions
that we are stopping publication of the paper version of the Journal, which will
inevitably reduce its readership, we feel justified in explaining why we believe
that it existence was necessary and how we are going to continue the work which
we have begun. In a series of editorials, Gershom Zajicek and I have described,
in our different ways, a widespread form of medical dogmatism and its
counterproductive effects. This is not to question the personal qualities of
clinicians and research workers. In every period of history, there have been
individuals with the same motivation to advance knowledge and to heal the sick.
There are no more and no fewer potential geniuses today than in the past.
Rather, it is the increasingly pervasive context that we call the
medico-industrial complex which seems to account for the present situation.
Here, we will try to describe the relationship between this complex, which
infiltrates every area of medical practice and research, and some forms of
"dogmatism" in important fields.
Our argument is centred around the
concept of measurable progress in human health. For cancer patients, the number
of deaths which can be ascribed to cancer and the age of the patients at death
are the two most important factors. Across the years, strongly contrasting
periods can be discerned. Sometimes the outcome for patients changes
dramatically over a limited time-span, as was the case for cancers in young
people between 1965 and 1975. At other times, the clinical picture seems to
stagnate for decades. This is in accordance with Thomas Kuhn's view of
Society changes from one period to another, and people with it.
Here we will not discuss the role of religious beliefs, but no-one can deny that
the present climate of materialism has a certain mystic element. This includes
the worship of technical devices coupled with a faith in science as being able
to embrace all knowledge. However, we will concentrate on scientific problems
and the temptations of dogmatism. We will see that in three separate fields the
same intransigence and determination to direct the distribution of resources
towards a single ideology leaves no room for alternative
Dogmatism in genetics
techniques are being used by an increasing number of laboratories in a wide
range of disciplines, to the extent of becoming commonplace; but molecular
biology is not in itself a discipline. Some molecular geneticists have adopted
the idea of Robert Sinsheimer, the initiator of the human genome project: "The
ancient dreams of the cultural perfection of mankind have always stumbled
against the imperfection and the limits of his inheritance. The horizons of the
new eugenic era are theoretically unlimited. For the first time in history a
living organism can understand its origins and work to create its
This is a utopic vision of the superman surrounded by a
supernature. Agriculture will no longer be content to simply select species, as
has been the practice since Neolithic times, but will go beyond the boundaries
of speciation. Man himself will be included in this revolution, so eagerly
awaited by some and so feared by others. In medicine, it will no longer be
enough to seek the means of healing in nature, as before. Now the barriers
between species will be broken down by technology, life will be universalized
and the future taken in hand.
Molecular geneticists are now identifying,
localizing and sequencing every gene with the aim, they say, of determining the
roles of the corresponding proteins, each of which is a potential drug, to be
produced on an industrial scale. It seems that genes can be turned into gold,
whether by the philosophers' stone or a magic wand. A dream of some substance; a
hundred thousand genes giving a hundred thousand possible patents and a hundred
thousand new drugs. A chance not to be missed. The chemical industry, grouped
around the large multinationals: Monsanto, Novartis,
Hoescht-Marion-Roussel-Rh˘§ne-Poulenc-Rorer, Glaxo-Wellcome, Du Pont...., are
concentrating on genetic engineering. The satellite biotechnology companies will
have to align themselves in this direction or disappear sooner or later. There
will be only one strategy for progress in medicine. No alternative, no choice,
Dogmatism in therapeutics
To achieve a
coherent strategy, therapeutics must advance simultaneously on several fronts.
1- the gradual elimination of old drugs which have not proved to be effective.
2- "evidence-based medicine". 3- the establishment of a "rigorous"
classification of diseases, which will be a complement to redefining the
procedure for releasing new drugs onto the market. At the moment, the complexity
and cost of these procedures restricts the use of novel treatments to a small
number of patients. The investment necessary is increasing with each new drug
and has reached a considerable sum, so that few companies can afford to
innovate. The monopoly of a small number of producers applies to the
pharmaceutical industry in the same way as it does to seed
This situation seems so inevitable that we accept it without
question. We forget to ask ourselves critically on what it is based. Let us make
the effort to consider some seldom asked questions. Seldom asked and even more
rarely answered. Who decides on the strategy of the pharmaceutical industry,
which by a knock-on effect defines the strategy of biotechnology companies and
the programmes of public research laboratories? For the most part, a few people
who take part in decisions made by the governing bodies of all three groups.
This crossover of deciders leads to a homology in the opinions of these
instances. The strongest argument is the extent of the commercial market. The
most common diseases of developed countries are those which can be expected to
give the best return of invested capital. This is why pseudo-innovation, in the
form of me-too drugs occupies such a large place in the pharmaceutical industry.
For the rest, it is clear what is important and decisions are made in advance.
There can be no process of learning by mistakes and adjusting strategy in
consequence: the different groups: scientists, technicians, industrialists,
economists, provide each other with reasons to carry on in the same direction.
The greater the resources devoted to the project, the harder it is to turn back.
Science, industry and bureaucracy combine to sanction this juggernaut. In any
case, the decisions were made by a consensus of experts capable of reaching the
highest level of certitude. The muffled cry of disagreement from some scientists
is not heard.
Progressively, a mystical quality attached to drugs is
replacing moderate and reasonable use of them in combination with non drug-based
therapy, which has been too hastily condemned as non scientific.
every symptom, syndrome or disease justifies the use of a specific drug. We
cannot at the same time denounce the over-prescription of antibiotics,
antidepressants, hypocholesterolemics and cytotoxic drugs and ignore the reasons
for this abuse. The hope the molecular genetics will at last provide specific
drugs without side-effects should be moderated in the light of the results of
the first trials. Remember that the results obtained from trials of gene therapy
have been much more modest than the announcements preceding them.
more rigorous to use drugs sparingly and to advise patients carefully about
their use than to multiply prescriptions. Doctors and scientists must accept
this. Do not expect this counter-escalation to be initiated by the
pharmaceutical industry, whose interests are not those of the patients. Those
who believe that drugs are everything should realize how dangerous it is to hold
a doctrine based on the illusion of progress. The combination "genes are
everything" and "drugs are everything" is becoming less
Dogmatism in epidemiology
Clinical research is
largely based on the mathematical analysis of results obtained from a series of
patients suffering from the same disease, at a similar stage in its progression.
In order to assess innovation objectively, doctors and the pharmaceutical
industry have turned to statisticians and a number of methodological constraints
Who can argue with the necessity for this? We do not
question the need to impose the basic rules of scientific experimentation on
clinical trials. However, these strict methodologies have become absurdly
restrictive. The status of the randomized trial has changed. From being one form
of organizing clinical research among others, it is now written into the
rule-book. Today, it is the only method which acceptable to the administration,
to industry and to doctors themselves (although sometimes over their dead
However, this much vaunted method has, like all others, limits
beyond which it is not only inefficient but even misleading. We refer the reader
to a recent article by Feinstein (1) which
describes precisely what can be expected of a randomized trial and what cannot.
Unfortunately, this is a difficult subject to broach, since most people are
firmly entrenched in their positions. Without embarking on a detailed criticism,
in this editorial we would like to make three points. 1. When drawing up a
clinical protocol, allowing oneself to be restricted by nosology can lead to
under-exploitation of the results. Classifying patients into groups may be an
experimental necessity, but should not be a point of principle. The concept of
disease should not be put before the practice of medicine. 2. The complexity and
cost of this sort of trial tends to limit the initial hypothesis and reduce the
amount of data submitted to mathematical analysis. Since patients suffering from
the same disease are a heterogeneous group, a randomized assignment protocol has
to be used. It is designed to neutralize the effect of this heterogeneity in the
population entering the trial. This practice means that only a part of the
available data is exploited, or at least that some of the information obtained
is put aside. 3. Methods of analysis exist which can include more data and,
rather than neutralizing the diversity of individual cases, can use it to
generate new hypotheses. As well as having no legal value, such methods are
rejected by medical journals because they are not classical.
ask ourselves what lies behind these three forms of dogmatism. We think that
they give food for thought and that many seldom asked questions will occur to
the reader. We have cited three areas in which the same attitude can be seen.
All three are closely associated with what we call the medico-industrial
complex. Is this a coincidence? If not, what are the interests and the forces in
play? Are we drifting towards a dogma in which only the persistent scientism of
the medical and biological milieu, fascinated by a poorly controlled
technological revolution, counts? We do not think so, but we have decided not to
be trapped by the frequently asked questions (FAQ) which insidiously limit the
opening of minds and the freedom to travel by other