HuffPost piece: casting drug companies as villains, when they are full of heroes.

October 23, 2013

The Caleb story in RACE ACROSS THE SKY seems to get more attention in reviews than the Shane story. Yet readers tell me that they enjoy both halves of the novel equally. So yesterday I published a piece on HuffPost Books focusing on the other issues in this book: how drug company employees, almost always portrayed as the villain in a book or movie, are heroes to me.

The Bad Guys

I don’t mean to blow the ending of your book or movie for you, but it’s very possible that the villain is a drug company.

In today’s entertainment, they are the bad guys.

And why not? They are complex, profit-driven multinational corporations, whose hands can be seen in conspiracies all over the globe. That’s the stuff of villainy.

Drug companies play the role today that tobacco companies played a decade ago. But there may be a consequence worth noting: are we biasing a generation against an industry which saves lives?

The designation of evil from the entertainment industry is extremely powerful. The writers of the Superman radio program are credited with helping turn a generation against the Ku Klux Klan, when they made them Superman’s enemy.

You don’t hear many people these days proudly announcing, ‘I’m going to work for a tobacco company!’ The resulting talent drain in that industry is, I’m guessing, significant. One thing I learned researching my novel on biomedicine companies is that if this happened to them, it would be tragic. Because our futures depend on them.

Last week, GlaxoSmithKline announced that it has developed the world’s first malaria vaccine. Malaria kills 1.2 million people a year. Every minute, a child dies of malaria. And half the world’s population is at risk of malaria as the mosquitoes carrying it spread. Eradicating malaria has been a top, if not the top, global health goal for a century.

This week, the New York Times announced that new cancer drugs have put us “at the start of a new era in cancer medicine.” Patients who were not better after traditional treatments are finding remission from pills rather than the destruction of chemotherapy and radiation.

The men and women at these companies, from startups of five people, to the big biotech players, come to work each day with the dream — in fact the intent — to solve disease. They work for years on one project, knowing their odds of ever seeing it produced are astronomically small. But still, they dedicate their lives to ending the diseases of our time.

Now, the drug company as villain ending has justifications. Major justifications. There have been chilling, sickening examples.

GlaxoSmithKline admitted bribing doctors to encourage the prescription of unsuitable antidepressants to children. “The company encouraged sales reps in the U.S. to mis-sell three drugs to doctors and lavished hospitality and kickbacks on those who agreed to write extra prescriptions… Paxil …was promoted as suitable for children and teenagers despite trials that showed it was ineffective.”

Merck’s drug Vioxx may have caused up to caused between 140,000 heart attacks in the five years the drug was on the market.

A new paper suggests that Merck hid evidence that Vioxx tripled the risk of cardiovascular death for more than three years before taking Vioxx off the market, while taking in $2.5 billion in sales a year.

Ghostwriting — when drug companies hire people to write glowing pieces about their drugs under the bylines of experts — is a tactic that many believe should be illegal. The practice of paying doctors to prescribe medications undermines our trust in our physicians.

If someone you loved died from a Vioxx induced heart attack, or attempted suicide after being given unapproved antidepressants, or was given the wrong antibiotic by a doctor who was accepting payments for her prescription, then you don’t want to hear about drug companies being heroic.

But if you’re one of the patients now cancer-free after years of agony, or you live in Malaria-stricken Africa and have watched children die, then you very well may.

The people who go to work in their labs every day are searching for new ways to treat autism, Parkinson’s, and the lesser-known diseases that so many people find themselves facing. Their names will never be known outside their industry. The drug they have devoted a decade to will probably die in clinical trials. Their failures are tragic. Their successes life-saving. That is the stuff of heroes.

And therefore it is the stuff of drama.

So drug companies are potent settings for fiction (and non-fiction). But when we make them our go-to villain, the effect on those consuming these stories can be serious. It biases a generation against an industry that needs new blood, as we run out of antibiotics, and discover new technologies.

And when we read about this week’s accomplishments, it seems to me we are reading about the good guys.

By the way, no drug company paid me to write this.

Derek Sherman is the author of RACE ACROSS THE SKY (August 2013, Plume/Penguin Books), the story of two estranged brothers–an ultramarathoner and a biotechnology drug rep–who unite to save a baby.