It’s not only hair loss support websites in bed with hair loss pharmaceuticals (see previous post). It seems hair loss research is also. So far, and I haven’t been looking hard, I’ve found 9 studies either funded by a hair loss pharmaceutical company or where one of the authors of the study are professionally employed by them:
- Passchier, Rigpma, Dutree-Meulenber, Verhage & Stolz (1989): Why men with hair loss go to the doctor. According to LinkedIn, Jennifer Passchier, the first author, has been Senior Coordinator for hairloss pharmaceutical giant Merck (creators of Propecia).
- Van der Donk, Passchier, Dutree-Meulenberg, Stolz & Verhage (1991): Psychologic characteristics of men with alopecia androgenetica and their modification. Another study written by Merck employee Jennifer Passchier.
- Cash (1992): The psychological effects of androgenetic alopecia in men. Funded by creators of hair loss treatment Rogaine: the Upjohn Company.
- Cash, Price & Savin (1993): Psychological effects of androgenetic alopecia on women: comparisons with balding men and with female control subjects. Another study funded by the Upjohn Company.
- Girman, Rhodes, Lilly, Guo, Siervogel, Patrick & Chumlea (1998). Effects of self-percieved hair loss in a community sample of men. The second author, Thomas Rhodes, lists Merck as an employer on his Research Gate profile.
- Budd, Himmelberger, Rhodes, Cash & Girman (2000): The effects of hair loss in European men: A survey in four countries. Merck employee Thomas Rhodes pops up once again. The paper lists his contact email as email@example.com.
- Alfonso, Richter-Appelt, Tosti, Viera & García (2005): The psychosocial impact of hair loss among men: a multinational European study. In the acknowledgements section of this study the authors admit: “This survey was conducted by Gallup Spain and sponsored by Merck, Sharp & Dohme. The authors also say that: “Writing assistance was provided by Elizabeth V. Hillyer, DVM, ELS, with support from Merck & Co.” (pg. 1835).
- Passchier, Jeroen, Fatima Erdman, Ruud (2006): Androgentic Alopecia: Stress of discovery. Another study by Merck employee: Jennifer Passchier.
- Cash (2009): Attitudes, behaviors, and expectations of men seeking medical treatment for male pattern hair loss: results of a multinational survey. Funded by Merck and later appears to inform Merck-commissioned e-programme for guiding GPs dealing with hair loss patients so that they can “learn about the mindset of patients who are seeking medical treatment for MPHL” (see figure below).
Two more studies authored by Merck employee Thomas Rhodes
- DeMuro-Mercon, C., Rhodes, T., Girman, C. J., & Vatten, L. (2000). Male-Pattern Hair Loss in Norwegian Men: A Community-Based Study. Dermatology, 200(3), 219–222. https://doi.org/10.1159/000018386
- Girman, C. J., Rhodes, T., Lilly, F. R., Guo, S. S., Siervogel, R. M., Patrick, D. L., & Chumlea, W. C. (1998). Effects of self-perceived hair loss in a community sample of men. Dermatology (Basel, Switzerland), 197(3), 223–229. https://doi.org/10.1159/000018001
Q. So what’s the problem here then?
A. Well there’s a definite conflict of interest. Hair loss pharmaceutical companies want men to buy their hair loss products. By funding research that says hair loss is psychologically distressing, balding men will be more likely to seek ways to remedy this. And what means of remedying this? Buying the hair loss treatment from the companies, of course. The treatment isn’t necessarily effective, has side effects and is expensive. So it’s not a panacea to hair loss.
Q. Couldn’t the research be funded by the hairloss companies whilst still being objective?
A. Short answer is (I think) it’s very unlikely. Whilst it’s true research could be funded by a company without interference, in practice this rarely happens. There’s a few thing that mean no interference in this research is unlikely:
- Ben Goldacre points out that many of the funding deals include gagging clauses so that if the company decides they don’t like the results they can hide them and the researcher is powerless to intervene. Obviously the researcher doesn’t have to admit whether they’ve signed a gagging clause.
- One of the studies (Alfonso et al., 2005) indicates Merck actually helped write the paper. That’s interference.
- And of course the other indication of interference is the actual results of these studies. Which is that for men, hair loss has a devastating impact psychologically and needs remedying, the report invariably concludes. What remedy? Well the authors don’t go so far as to say pharmaceutical ones, that would be too blatant. But you just need to visit one of the hair loss support websites (funded by Merck) pretending to be about support but actually really just promoting pharmaceutical treatments. Also note research that isn’t funded by these companies actually finds men who accept their hair loss suffer less psychological distress than men who try to battle it or disguise it (Kranz, 2011). But no one’s talking about these findings are they?
If the studies are interfered with why are the authors upfront about being funded then?
Because they have to be. Journal or university make researchers acknowledge any funding. Of course, apart from these minimal footnotes or acknowledgments these studies still look neutral. They don’t specify the extent to which the company had access to the data or writing the report after all. And remember researchers are trained to write objectively. The papers are published in academic journals and accessed through academic databases. This all means the studies look legit and neutral. So anyone reading the study is unlikely to be skeptical. Plus by the time the media pick up the study and cocks around with its findings the funding acknowledgements invariably gets lost.
As I said before – when men think they are being offered support or reading a neutral research paper they are actually being given the hard sell. Hair loss sufferers have it bad already; many don’t like to admit what’s bothering them and are desperate for a solution. So this IS a vulnerable group that pharma and researchers are exploiting. That, to me, is very shameful.
Update 27/5/14: I have since heard that at least one of the authors above has done research on hair loss but was banned from publishing it because the pharmaceutical sponsor didn’t like the results. I don’t want to sound dramatic – and it’s not the mafia – but I have been warned against writing this post and identifying who it is because they’re big in the field and might just blacklist me or something. I’m sure they wouldn’t/couldn’t, right?