There's a lot at stake in media coverage of the biotech industry. For the companies themselves, obviously, but for others too. Like us at The Scientist: we have to make judgments on what to cover and how, based on our aim of ensuring that you, our readers, get the maximum amount of information.
Two stories in this issue illustrate the tensions between company objectives and ours. One is the profile of Neil Fowler here. This is an incisive sketch of an important industry player, but to get beneath the skin of the Centocor CEO we wanted to know what he had to say about the possibility of layoffs at his company, given that two sister companies under the J&J umbrella - Alza and Scios - had just had massive cuts. He refused to talk about it. I guess the moose just didn't want to play that day ....
The other is the feature on the work of BrainCells Inc. here. The company is a model for the potential impact of basic research on drug development, it's a great read. We wanted more about BCI540, the compound the company seems to be pinning an awful lot of financial and clinical hopes on. All they would say is that it was in-licensed from Mitsubishi, that it had failed Phase II trials because of a lack of efficacy in treating a neurological and non-psychiatric disease, that it does not work by the mechanisms by which traditional antidepressants do, and that patients in the trial taking the drug suffered side effects similar to those taking placebo.
Sounds like a lot of information. It wasn't enough, however, to judge two of BrainCells' key claims: That BCI540, if it works in the trials they're planning for later this year, would be the first new mechanism of action of an antidepressant in 25 years, and that bypassing the serotonin system would eliminate many of the side effects of SSRIs such as Prozac. What we wanted to know, so that we could ask other experts their opinions of BCI540's chances of success, was the mechanism of action. We wanted to know what condition patients in the trial had, so that we could get a sense of their baseline status and whether mood was likely to be affected. The company declined to give us any of that information.
We'll follow the story and keep you updated.
These aren't the first instances of us battling to get you the relevant information. Until a few years ago, The Scientist routinely ran pieces in our Lab Tools section that were not nearly as helpful as they could have been to our readers: they lacked pricing info. The point of service journalism of the sort we run in our departments is to help readers make better-informed decisions, and it's hard to decide to buy something without knowing what it will cost you. Now, no pricing data means no coverage. Almost everyone complies and the articles are much more helpful, I hope you'll agree.
The problem, of course, is that companies often don't want to disclose certain kinds of information. Their prerogative, you shrug; it's a competitive marketplace. I can't argue. But in all of these cases the companies sought - and continue to seek - press coverage. Our editors get literally hundreds of press releases every month from companies reporting new products, successful fundraising efforts, and more. BrainCells is represented by one of the industry's leading PR firms. Companies want press coverage, and they spend lots of money to try to get it. They just seem to want a certain kind of press coverage: unquestioning boosterism.
Unfortunately, that isn't journalism. It's public relations. It may serve the companies well but it doesn't serve our readers. That, at the end of the day, is where our first allegiance is. So, companies (and the PR firms that represent them), you're on notice. If you decide that coverage in The Scientist is worth your while, come to us with the whole story, and be prepared to answer our questions.