Big pharma should hate these Hollywood blockbuster movies

Drug development does not evoke thoughts of inspirational film making. The process is long, expensive and fraught with failures along the way. Come to think of it, that description rings true for a number of movies as well. Pharmas have figured prominently in many movies, more often than not coming off as the bad guy. […]

Drug development does not evoke thoughts of inspirational film making. The process is long, expensive and fraught with failures along the way. Come to think of it, that description rings true for a number of movies as well.

Pharmas have figured prominently in many movies, more often than not coming off as the bad guy. Big Pharma has a thick skin. That’s needed in order to deal with the pressures from Wall Street, scrutiny from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and criticism from dissatisfied patients. But some movies might cut a little too close to the bone for pharmas’ comfort.

Here’s a list of the top movies that Big Pharma loves to hate. I’m sure I’ve missed a movie or two but I’m also pretty sure that the pharma depictions in these movies have struck a nerve with a pharma executive.

If I’ve missed one, post a comment or send tweet to @medcitynews.

10. The Fugitive

A murder mystery whodunit with a pharmaceutical industry twist. Dr. Richard Kimble’s research on experimental drug Provasic found that it cause severe liver damage, a risk that would almost certainly block its path to FDA approval. The big bad pharma wants Kimble out of the picture and orders a hit. Kimble’s wife is killed instead. Though Kimble is convicted, he escapes. In his efforts to find the true killer he discovers that a friend, who led Provasic’s development, was the one trying to cover up Kimble’s findings. Drug development was never so thrilling.


9. Mission: Impossible II

Behind the stylized action scenes characteristic of John Woo films lies the backdrop of an Australian pharmaceutical company’s financial objectives and the lengths the pharma takes to achieve them. BioCyte Pharmaceuticals has developed a vaccine called Bellerophon to combat the Chimera virus, which starts to destroy a person’s red blood cells 20 hours after infection. Problem is, they created the virus in the first place in order to create the market for the vaccine.

Have no fear, Tom Cruise saves the day. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s 1 point for humans and 0 for evil viruses.


8. Resident Evil

To the unassuming public, the Umbrella Corporation was an innocuous producer of consumer products, foods and cosmetics. But cosmetics covered up the conglomerate’s more nefarious operations in darker aspects of biotechnology. Several secret Umbrella research facilities focused on developing bioweapons. Umbrella’s Tyrant virus, or T-virus, renders its hosts into zombies. Despite efforts to contain an outbreak, the virus spreads beyond the Umbrella compound, zombifying humanity. Score 1 for viruses. The score is now viruses 1, humans 1.


7. Love and Other Drugs

There’s perception that pharmaceutical sales representatives are driven by only one thing: money. “Love and Other Drugs” does little to change that perception but it adds another motive to the equation: sex. The movie is set in the mid-1990s when Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) erectile dysfunction drug Viagra became a blockbuster.

Pfizer had no role in making the movie, which is based on a book by a former Pfizer sales rep. But many of the sales practices depicted in the film, which have since been barred as unethical, were common at the time. Reps did hand out drug samples like they’re candy. They also wined and dined doctors to persuade them to prescribe a pharma’s products. Pfizer and other pharmas are trying to distance themselves from that reputation. But most moviegoers probably won’t think enough to make that distinction.


6. 28 Weeks Later

A virus that turns normal people into zombies becomes a pandemic ravaging all of England. Six months later, the siege by “The Infected” has run its course as the zombies die from starvation. But the military forces that have secured London stumble upon a woman who has the virus but is not  infected. Major Scarlet Ross, chief medical officer for the military-run district in a zombie free-section of London, sees in this woman the potential for a vaccine. It was not to be. Another outbreak ensues and the survivors, civilians and soldiers, die one by one, including Ross. In the end, the infection spreads beyond England’s borders.

Uh oh. The score is now viruses 2, humans 1.


5. Brain Candy, Kids in the Hall.

Antidepression is a huge market and it’s a market that real pharmas are clamoring to address. Fictional pharma Roritor Pharmaceuticals develops GleeMONEX. Eager to cash in, the company rushes the drug into production without doing enough testing and later finds that users experience a troubling side effect — reverting to a comatose state, locked into their happiest memory. A drug researcher, concerned over the drug’s safety risks and wants to withdraw GleeMONEX from the market and clashes with the pharma’s marketers who want to protect drug profits. A mostly forgetable movie that came past the peak of comedy toupe the Kids in the Hall. A story about a pharma wanting to keep a risky drug on the market to preserve profits — that’s never happened, right?


4. Rise of the Planet of the Apes

How did apes rise to challenge human dominance of the earth? “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” explains it in a biotechnology effort to cure Alzheimer’s disease. Experimental drug ALZ-112, derived from a virus, shows promise as an Alzheimer’s treatment in apes but in an unauthorized human test, initial improvement is followed by a return of the disease. A more potent version, ALZ-113, increases ape intelligence to human levels but proves fatal to humans. Humanity’s downfall is only a matter of time. The score so far? Viruses 3. Humans 1.


3. The Simpsons, “Brother’s Little Helper”

Not a movie, but an interesting take on the perception that pharmas overmedicate our kids. Bart has always been a handful in school but his behavioral problems finally force Principal Skinner to issue an ultimatum: Take the untested behavioral med “Focusyn” or be expelled from school. Focusyn is a spoof of attention deficit disorder drug Ritalin and at first, Bart resists attempts to be medicated. But he finally relents and after taking his medicine, he finds the drug helps. His schoolwork improves and he starts respect authority. But side effects manifest in paranoia. In a Focusyn-induced state, Bart goes on a rampage throughout Springfield.

Honorable mention to the epsiode “Barting Over,” which references Homer as a pitchman for “Viagrogaine,” a combo drug that pairs erectile dysfunction drug Viagra with hair growth product Rogaine “to give you hair up there and what you need down there.”


2. Splice

“Human cloning is illegal. This won’t be human. Not entirely.” Two genetic engineers at the fictional Newstead Pharmaceuticals splice DNA from different animals to create animal hybrids. These hybrids are hoped to lead to compounds with pharmaceutical promise. In a radical experiment unbeknownst to their superiors, they splice human DNA with a hybrid creating an alien-like creature with some human qualities. Despite the mayhem that follows, the pharma ultimately sees opportunity to capitalize on the discoveries. Science fiction has often visited the topic of scientists playing God and suffering the consequences. Splice does it it in the context of a pharmaceutical company’s drive to fill drug pipelines. A Newstead executive chillingly says,  “We’ll be filing patents for years.” But at what ethical cost?


1. The Constant Gardener

The worst fears of pharmaceutical drug testing are depicted in this 2005 film, an adaptation of a John Le Carre novel. Lead character Justin Quayle’s investigation of his wife’s murder uncovers the practices of a fictional pharma KDH that tests its drugs on poor Kenyans in exchange for free health care. Tuberculosis drug “dypraxa” has serious side effects but the company is willing to accept the deaths of Kenyans in its pursuit of new products. While the story is fiction, a perception persists that pharma companies withold safety information about their drugs. Merck (NYSE:MRK) insisted that arthritis drug Vioxx was safe, even as information emerged linking it to higher cardiovascular risks. The firm has reached a multi-million dollar settlement to resolve Vioxx claims. GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK) recently reached a $3 billion settlement with the U.S. government that resolves claims over its marketing of diabetes drug Avandia, which was also been linked to higher cardiovascular risks. The companies admit no wrongdoing in the settlements. “The Constant Gardener” spins its tale for dramatic effect. But what is particularly haunting in the minds of many viewers is just how real the story could be.

Bart Simspon image from