The 2023 John Maddox Prize winners: defending science in the face of corporate greed

BioTechniques News
Aisha Al-Janabi

The 2023 John Maddox prizes, which commemorate the former editor of Nature (London, UK) and paragon of good scientific communication by rewarding researchers who bravely stand up for sound science in the face of personal or public persecution, have been announced.

Previous prize winners include Eucharia Oluchi Nwaichi (University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria), whose research helped to diffuse a potentially violent dispute between local communities and an oil company on the effects of liquid waste on fish stocks in Rivers State. Despite officials from another oil company confiscating her recordings and further representatives of the company presenting a significant threat, she continues to work, facing those who reject her right to conduct such work as a woman. Other winners have been subject to hate mail, intimidation, lawsuits and professional discrimination as a result of their refusal to abandon their principles and to continue communicating their scientific findings.

During a conversation with the Velocity of Content podcast, Tracey Brown, founder of Sense About Science (London, UK), the charity that runs the John Maddox Prize in collaboration with Nature, explained that as well as recognizing the incredible bravery of some scientists, often to their personal detriment, it was important to “say a word for people speaking out on controversial topics, because scientists are not trained to do that, it’s not what they bought into. The fact that they do it is something that we should applaud and protect and recognize.”

Nancy Olivieri

This year’s winner of the John Maddox Prize was Nancy Olivieri (University of Toronto, Canada), a hematologist who was working on a clinical trial for the drug deferiprone, which was designed to treat thalassemia by removing excess iron from the body. She became concerned that the drug was leading to serious adverse events and on informing Apotex (Toronto, Canada), the pharmaceutical company sponsoring the trial, they denied that deferiprone was the cause. After Olivieri informed them that she was going to let the participants know about the potential risks, Apotex terminated the trial before threatening her with legal action.

Despite this threat, Olivieri published her results and presented them at a conference. In 2000, she was fired from SickKids Hospital (Toronto, Canada), which had received a large donation from Apotex, and charged with professional misconduct. She worked at the University Hospital Network (Toronto, Canada) from 2000–2009 but was replaced by a clinician supported by Apotex.

Speaking on the same podcast as Brown, Olivieri revealed that “you end up being alienated from the field that gave your life’s work meaning. I don’t work in hematology anymore, except for in emerging countries. I don’t work on University Avenue anymore because I was excluded from that. That is what happens when you step out of line from the dominant narrative… Most whistleblowers don’t end up with their own homes… It’s a suicide mission, this type of disclosure.”

Globally, public funding for clinical trials has decreased over the last 30 years, while pharmaceutical investment has increased. As a result, the clinical trial space has evolved to be predominantly run by pharma companies, which have a financial stake in the outcome of the trial. Therefore, according to Olivieri, “we have a situation in which pharma directs the trials, designs what’s studied, how it’s studied, how it’s reported, if it’s reported, what toxicity and effectiveness is reported… the problem is that patients are vulnerable as they are the ones that take the drugs tested in these trials. You may not care about academic freedom or research integrity, but you should care if you are ever going to take a drug in your life.”

Chelsea Polis

The Early Career Prize went to Chelsea Polis, an epidemiologist at the Population Council’s Center for Biomedical Research (NY, USA). Polis was awarded the prize for challenging the false marketing claims made by the manufacturer of the fertility tracking thermometer Daysy. The company was using flawed research to generate marketing claims that Daysy could be used as a “highly effective contraceptive method, claiming over 99% contraceptive effectiveness.”  Polis identified that the studies used to produce these stats were “egregiously flawed” using “inappropriate approaches to both data collection and analysis,” which she documented in a paper published in 2018.

Alongside this publication, she submitted an allegation of regulatory misconduct to the US FDA, which forced the company to correct its marketing messages. Polis was subsequently sued by the manufacturer for defamation as, having seen the marketing message and misinformation about Daysy spreading on social media and putting young people at risk, she had immediately set out on an information campaign to address this misinformation.

Speaking on the Velocity of Content podcast, Polis explained that in this information campaign, she had, “used language such as ‘junk science’ to refer to a retracted study, and ‘unethical’ to describe a company that was selling a device as a highly effective contraceptive method in violation of FDA regulation.” The company claimed these terms were defamatory and took her to court for USD$ 1 million, in what is called a ‘strategic litigation against public participation’ lawsuit, or SLAPP, designed to deter people from speaking out on matters of public interest by forcing them to pay bank-breaking legal costs.

Fortunately, Polis received pro-bono representation from Arnold & Porter (D.C., USA) and the defamation suit was unsuccessful.

Thankfully, researchers with deep integrity and perseverance such as Olivieri and Polis have stood up and made a significant difference in these occasions, winning an ethical outcome supported by sound science. The fact that the system has relied on the individual sacrifices of researchers in these instances, however, is deeply disturbing for our society. Stronger controls and more thorough enforcement of existing regulations are required to ensure that no amount of money can overcome scientific evidence to drive a product to market. In these two instances, Olivieri and Polis risked their reputations, careers and livelihoods; how many more times can we expect researchers to possess the support and iron will required to raise such concerns and challenge Goliath?

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