September 22, 2020

Hemophiliacs fall victim to pharmaceutical corruption

By Jada Grisson

The Faculty Senate held its 22nd semi-annual Colloquium for the Recognition of Research and Creative Activity on March 1.

Donna Shaw, professor and chair of the Department of Journalism and Professional Writing at the College, presented a lecture centered around her recently published book, “Blood on Their Hands: How Greedy Companies, Inept Bureaucracy, and Bad Science Killed Thousands of Hemophiliacs.”

Shaw recounted the pharmaceutical industry’s intentional malpractice in the manufacturing of clotting drugs meant to fix bleeding complications related to hemophilia — an inherited disease that prevents blood from clotting properly — the warning signs leading up to what she described as one of modern medicine’s largest disasters and the ramifications faced by patients in North America and Europe.

The disease disproportionately affects one in every 5,000 males, according to Shaw.

Shaw exposes malpractice in the production of blood-clotting drugs. (Miguel Gonzalez / Sports Editor)

A research team at Stanford University developed a method to separate the necessary clotting proteins from blood plasma in 1964, which revolutionized the drug market.

Hemophiliacs’ lives were brief and severely limited before the introduction of these new drugs in the late 1960s, “but there were problems from the beginning,” Shaw said.

Shaw was given two years to exclusively research the story for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where she had been employed for almost 20 years.

After a long and thorough fact-gathering process, Shaw uncovered systematic failings in both the legal system and the world of business as dangerous truths about these drugs were discovered by the corporations manufacturing the drugs, but hidden from the public eye.

Within months of being introduced to the market, hemophiliacs on the new drug began to come forward with diagnoses of hepatitis and other blood-borne illnesses. Shaw’s research found that the number would only continue to grow as the drug stayed on the market.

Shaw reported on early studies of the drug that revealed its tendency toward contamination and capacity to spread infection. The blood samples necessary to manufacture it were not put through the standard processes meant to kill viruses before use, as they were harmful to the plasma, a necessary component in the drug’s clotting effect.

Even after a process was developed to solve this issue, there was a delay in its distribution in the U.S., until companies began to face competition from international markets.

Pulling paid donors from high-risk regions and known areas with high rates of infection, such as developing countries, exacerbated this issue, according to Shaw.

The Food and Drug Administration was aware of the usage of samples from high-risk donors at the time, and upon the development of a proper cleansing method, did not require data to be collected on blood samples so long as they had been through the treatment, regardless of effectiveness.

“It was a running joke,” Shaw said. “The new guys at the manufacturing plants were assigned to dump the blood samples into the vats –– they would contract hepatitis just from being in the room.”

Attempts to release studies on the samples by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control that found high rates of contamination were blocked by other high ranking officials.

Shaw recounted the results of this negligence, sharing with the audience that thousands of hemophiliacs in the U.S. and around the world died due to complications with blood-borne illnesses such as hepatitis and AIDS.

“Anytime politicians interfere with scientists, I think we all need to worry,” Shaw said.

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