Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer chose not to research whether its anti-inflammatory drug Enbrel helped combat Alzheimer’s, despite promising signs—then withheld the internal findings from publication.

The Washington Post obtained company documents proposing a 4-year clinical trial into Enbrel’s effectiveness against Alzheimer’s.

In 2015, a Pfizer division examined insurance records for 254,000 people suffering from inflammatory diseases—those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s took less Enbrel than the Alzheimer-free patients. A second check in another insurance claims database supported this finding: Enbrel reduced Alzheimer incidence by roughly 64 percent.

But Pfizer refused to pursue specific research, arguing Enbrel did not target brain tissue and the inconclusive findings might mislead scientists.

Critics argue Pfizer’s motivations were financial: why conduct new, expensive trials into Enbrel just as its patent—ensuring Pfizer’s monopoly—expired in 2018?

Pfizer would pay to establish Enbrel’s anti-Alzheimer efficacy and obtain FDA approval—only for generic manufacturers to begin selling unbranded versions of Enbrel as both anti-arthritic and anti-Alzheimer.

Scientists confirm publishing data—positive or negative, preliminary or conclusive—is essential to inform future research efforts. Some stress rigorous standards prevent companies from disclosing drugs’ possible benefits without conducting proper clinical trials prior.

How should pharmaceutical companies balance scientific caution (and corporate expenditure) with public health needs?

   

Credit for this article's header image goes to Getty.