Health News Review

The following is a guest post by William Heisel, one of our story reviewers, and publisher of his own excellent blog, Antidote: Investigating Untold Health Stories.


Italian researchers this week published a small study indicating that a type of hormone could help improve the sex lives of women going through menopause.

Stories about the study appeared in media outlets around the world – including USA Today, CBS News, WebMD, and The Huffington Post — but not a single one mentioned a key fact. The lead author on the study, Dr. Andrea Genazzani, has repeatedly allowed her name to be used by pharmaceutical companies on studies that have been ghostwritten by marketing firms pushing hormone treatments.

Drug companies have made billions marketing hormone treatments to women – despite known risk factors for heart disease and cancer. As new risks have arisen, the companies have pivoted and marketed a new twist on the same products or the same products for new ailments. So when a study says that a hormone might be a good treatment for menopausal women, journalists should start looking for the fine print. Instead, they mostly relied on the press release issued by the journal that published the study, Climacteric.

CBS News wrote:

Has hormone replacement therapy (HRT) met its match for menopause? For years the therapy – a combination of estrogen and progesterone hormones – has been the standard treatment for women’s menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes, sexual discomfort, and mood swings. But since 2002, several studies have tied HRT to increased risk for heart disease and breast cancer. A new study suggests low doses of a different hormone, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), may provide menopausal women an alternative treatment option.

That story ran with a stock photo of a naked woman in bed with a man reading the newspaper. She’s giving the thumbs down signal. The title of this photo – no joke – is “sexy older woman in bed.” The muddled message seems to be that if only this woman had the benefit of some DHEA her news-junkie partner would find her irresistible.

Instead of hunting for photos, CBS News and all of these outlets could have spent just 30 seconds with the University of California San Francisco’s Drug Industry Document Archive and found that their lead source for this story was conflicted 99 different ways.

In November 2001, the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology published a paper co-authored by Genazzani that was written with help from DesignWrite. This ghostwriting firm was hired by Wyeth to do four things:

1. Promote hormone products.

2. Write articles that promoted hormone products.

3. Finding scientists who would sign their names to these marketing-driven articles.

4. Submit these articles to ostensibly legitimate medical journals.

Genazzani has proven to be a reliable “external author” – to borrow a phrase from DesignWrite. She has signed her name to several articles and conference presentations secretly by DesignWrite and Parthenon Publishing, another firm working with Wyeth and DesignWrite.

Inevitably, the papers made Wyeth’s products look good, but, instead of an advertising slogan, these articles had something better: the sound of science. In 2005, ghostwriters working for Wyeth published “Efficacy on climacteric symptoms of a continuous combined regimen of 1 mg 17beta-estradiol and trimegestone versus two regimens combining 1 or 2 mg 17beta-estradiol and norethisterone acetate.” The article was carefully crafted by DesignWrite and shepherded through the publication process for two years. The paper, published in Gynecological Endocrinology, said, “This reinforces the existing evidence that low-dose combinations are efficient in treating symptomatic postmenopausal women, providing endometrial protection, significantly improving quality-of-life measures and reversing the deleterious effect of estrogen deprivation on bone density and metabolism.”

Sounds like a pretty incredible drug, huh?

The influence of a ghostwritten paper does not stop with that publication. Over the past five years, that article has been cited at least eight times. The earlier paper, in Obstetrics and Gynecology, has been cited 61 times.

Marketing-as-science is perpetuated, and more doctors and patients are fooled.

Now that DHEA is being touted as the new wonder drug for menopause, more reporters need to stop and spend some time explaining to readers that we have seen claims like this before. Bought and paid for by a drug company looking for new customers.



Liz Scherer posted on December 27, 2011 at 3:41 pm

As you know, I’ve been covering HRT on Flashfree for years and recently wrote about this DHEA story. You can find that post here: As soon as I saw the study, I knew that there was going to be a lot of hype around it, however if you read it, you soon realize how small it was and how, like many reporters who covered the piece, it seemingly ignored any relevant data with regards to drug drug interactions or adverse effects. Moreover, I found the claims with regards to general vasomotor symptoms were not well covered within the piece and yet, there were hundreds of stories online from major media outlets espousing DHEA as the next best thing.

I have long believed that the media is complicit in supporting, directly or indirectly, the menopause industrial complex, if not part of it. For many women who find themselves suffering from sexual dysfunction or hot flashes and are desperate for an answer, it’s clear that that answer is not as clearcut as we would like. It’s time to stop taking women’s health for granted and for companies to stop marketing aging as a disease. Thanks for covering this.