But Deakin University did not have the elaborate and costs equipment for the work Briggs had described, and he gave no indication of where the tests had been performed.
Another query was raised over where Briggs had obtained one of the hormone products, desogestrel, which was not licensed for use in Australia, but for which he published results.
In one paper, tables contradicted the text, and in another a measurement technique used for human subjects relied on a standard meant for sheep. A third, a paper reporting work with beagle dogs, could not have been done as Briggs claimed because there are no beagles at Deakin.
Under pressure from complaints brought by specialists at Deakin and in Melbourne, vice-chancellor Jevons questioned Briggs, who made a number of checkable claims. But Briggs went to law, using a procedural point to block a university investigation. After attempting to support him, Jevons finally changed his mind.
“I think this was the first time in history that the law was used to stop a scientific investigation,” says Jevons, now an emeritus professor at Deakin. “That was the turning point for me. I defended him up until then.”
BY THIS time, however, Briggs’ work had managed to penetrate medical literature, even though none of his results of any real importance on contraception has been published in a major medical or science journal. Instead, his key work appeared substantially through the medium of drug-company sponsored books.
These publications, essentially transcripts of specially-arranged symposia, provide a quick, cheap, but poorly-vetted means of issuing new research to doctors. Briggs’s work therefore acquired “respectability” through symposia in Madrid; in San Francisco, financed by Schering; and in Leuvens in Belgium financed by Wyeth.
Had Briggs offered his findings to one of the major medical or scientific journals, which normally employ panels of experts to “referee”, or vet papers, suspicions might have been aroused that would have caught him out. But the eminent editors of the symposia proceedings could not have had the time or the resources to make any rigorous inquiries of Briggs.
“The editor can’t go and check whether the laboratory equipment existed or the patients existed,” says Professor Max Elstein, who edited the San Francisco proceedings, and who chaired another symposium last week in Chicago. “You rely on the scientific integrity of the person who supplies the data.”
Despite these difficulties, and the consensus in medicine and science that symposia proceedings should not been given too much weight, they were submitted by drug companies to national licensing authorities and were extensively used to promote brands of pills to doctors. In Wyeth promotions, still being distributed in Chicago last week, Briggs’s material is used to authenticate important safety claims.
Promotions directly to family doctors have also been dominated by references to Briggs’s work. “No significant lipid impact up to 18 months of use,” declares a Wyeth worldwide advertising campaign, quoting a Wyeth symposium paper.
WHEN Briggs quit Deakin a year ago and retired to a villa in the south of Spain, the university council ruled that this was not an admission of guilt. “No charge or complaint is proved against professor Briggs,” declared Mr Justice Ashe, the chancellor, accepting the resignation. “Nothing adverse to his reputation has been established and no inferences to him should be drawn.”
This was not, however, the verdict of the international scientific community. Last October, a special meeting was held in West Berlin, solely to discuss Briggs. British doctors agreed that researchers should no longer use his findings. They believe that the deceptions discovered in his work are so serious that earlier papers, relating to many more contraceptive products, must now be re-examined.
“What is clear is that we must not now trust any of the earlier work that he did,” says Dr John Guillebaud, director of the Margaret Pyke family planning centre in London, who attended the Berlin discussion. “The reviews and letters are all right, but we can’t accept the research.”
However, these have remained private decisions. Although the charges against Briggs are common knowledge at a senior level in the pharmaceutical industry and among researchers on the pill, most of those who know have been unwilling to tell the tale. “I’m sorry, I can’t help you any further,” said Guillebaud. “Not in my position.”
No suggestion of complicity by the drug companies has been made - indeed Briggs often acknowledged the firms that supplied products for his tests. Wyeth International said last week that, although it had financed Briggs, it was “supporting” rather than “sponsoring” his research. proposals for studies came from Briggs, not the company.
Schering AG said it never doubted his work. “Professor Briggs had a very high rank in the medical community. He was consultant for oral contraception to the World Health Organisation for many years. He has published extensive work. He was looked upon as a real authority in the field,” sys Dr Ursula Lachnit-Fixson, head of Schering’s hormone research and inventor of triphasics. “We have no reason whatsoever to doubt that his work has been done correctly.”
WHEN we first pulled up outside Briggs’s new home in Marbella it was clear such an arrival by a newspaper was the sort of event he had long feared.
Despite a series of admissions, he denies that the matter is of any significance. The results he produced were similar to those of other researcher, he tells us, and the link between blood chemistry changes and long-term illness was still a matter of medical speculation. It was not his fault that so much had been made of his work.
“What am I supposed to do?” he said, during one of several moments when he almost broke down. “In any case, can’t you leave her out of it?” he added, nodding towards his wife, who shared much of his work. “It’s me, really, you are interested in.”
Also read Brian Deer's piece: Selling the pill like soap
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