Joe Collier on big pharma vs the mobile phone: let battle commence

Professor Joe Collier I strongly believe we are heading for one almighty battle. Millions and millions of pounds have been spent by the drugs industry in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease. Much more money is being reaped as drugs (often of marginal benefit) are used in its management worldwide. With this scenario all was looking secure for the drug manufacturers but then, on 6 January, there was a seismic change in the landscape.

In the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease an article by Gary Arendash and his colleagues reported how exposure to the high frequency electromagnetic waves emitted by mobile phones can prevent or even reverse certain clinical features and underlying pathology of Alzheimer’s disease in susceptible mice. Obviously, were this to hold equally for humans, there is a strong possibility that such a simple and cheap physical approach would become the management of first choice in the prevention and treatment of this terrible disease.

So what happens next? Faced with the prospect, albeit remote, of losing a lucrative market, I predict that the industry will want to quash the electromagnetic treatment theory as soon as possible. To this end, I would expect that the industry propaganda machine will go into overdrive in an attempt to undermine the credibility and findings of Arendash, and to overwhelm the decision makers (ultimately the funders) so that the use of drugs is maintained. The power of industry as an information generator and distributor is unmatched, and industry will use all its persuasive skills in order that its products remain dominant in the treatment of a disease that is, after all, ideal for drug companies in that it is serious, chronic and common. On the industry’s behalf, new research will be done, old data will be dredged, opinion leaders will recruited, symposia will be organised, press notices released, all to sideline the mobile phone theory. For industry, the sooner and more completely this theory can be quashed the better. In the first instance they certainly will not want ‘city’ analysts to take it seriously with the risk of a shares slump.

I believe that the battle over the electromagnetic theory won’t take long to surface, will probably be dirty, and could last years. If nothing else, we must ensure it is given a reasonable chance to germinate. Watch this space.

Joe Collier is emeritus professor of medicines policy at St George’s, University of London

  • Stewart Daniels

    For “one almighty battle” to ensue, some successful external verification of these findings will need to occur.

    Do you seriously rate the prospects of this research in the medium to long term?

  • When I first heard the “cellphone magnetism might prevent/treat Alzheimer’s” news, my first thought was that the cellphone lobby must have been funding any and all research projects to find _something_ positive about the health impact of the devices. I’d like to know more about the research and the circumstances around it before jumping to the conclusion that any dissenting voices “must” be the work of Big Pharma.

    Granted, when it turned out that ulcers were caused by bacteria, the antacid industry didn’t exactly dance and celebrate in the streets! There were interpretive battles to be fought, and we should want to see data from multiple labs and using multiple techniques to assess the potential of any new advance.

    If it turns out that electromagnetism does have a reliable beneficial use for improving human health, that will be splendid. If it turns out that electromagnetism is useful, but at the risk of cancers as a side effect, we’ll have difficult decisions to make all around.

  • Dr Anthony Papagiannis

    How encouraging to hear that something good may emerge from mobile phone use after all! So far all we’ve been told was that it may slowly cook our brains. But then again, maybe cooked brains are Alzheimer resistant?

  • In the interest of open debate, dare I suggest that anybody who makes a comment on this piece should declare their potential conflicts of interest. For mysel, apart from being a user of medicines I have no links with the pharmaceutical industry, and apart from being a user of mobile phones none with the mobile phone industry.

  • Perhaps Joe Collier would like to comment on what Dr. Wolfgang Wodarg, the chair of the Health Committee in The European Council called “one of the greatest medical scandals of the century” and the lack of coverage in the British media?

    According to the online Pharma Times:

    “The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) is to hold an emergency debate and inquiry this month into the “influence” exerted by drugmakers on the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) global H1N1 flu campaign.

    The text of the resolution approved by the Assembly calling for the debate and inquiry states that: “in order to promote their patented drugs and vaccines against flu, pharmaceutical companies influenced scientists and official agencies responsible for public health standards to alarm governments worldwide and make them squander tight health resources for inefficient vaccine strategies, and needlessly expose millions of healthy people to the risk of an unknown amount of side-effects of insufficiently tested vaccines.”

    This is a scandal of the highest order, and everywhere there is silence. Why?

  • Dr Anthony Papagiannis

    Apart from taking this opportunity to exercise my tongue against the interior of my cheek I have no other interest in a potential business conflict between Pharma and Cellula. I prescribe medicines (but not for Alzheimer’s) and I use a mobile phone more as a recipient of calls from my patients than as a client.

  • Dr Martin Toal

    Allow me to be the first Pharmaceutical Industry respondent. To begin, I have never worked, and possibly never will, for any company involved in Alzheimer’s Disease drug development. I do use a mobile phone.

    Joe is rather coy in his declaration of conflicts of interest. He is well known as a trenchant critic of the pharma industry. Fair enough, he is entitled to be, but just so you know.

    The substantive point is that if any pharma company presented research in an animal model of disease suggesting a game changing treatment was near, Joe would rightly point out that until this was demonstrated to work in real patients with the real disease, and with an acceptable benefit-risk ratio, this was nothing more than an interesting idea with some potential.

    So is the case here. After some phase III trials, the situation may be different. Or not. We will see.

    DOI: Pharmaceutical Physician, Fellow Faculty Pharmaceutical Medicine.

  • Sam

    Decalaration of Interest: I am a doctor working in the pharmaceutical industry. I enjoy using mobile phones. I know people with Alzheimer's Disease.

    'The power of [the pharmaceutical] industry as an information generator and distributor is unmatched, and industry will use all its persuasive skills in order that its products remain dominant in the treatment of a disease…'.

    Apple, Nokia, Sony, Samsung, Motorola, Google, GE, Medtronic, Philips – just some of the small companies that have an interest in mobile phones or electromagnetic medical devices. Should it become clear that elecromagnetic waves have some therapeutic application in Alzheimer's (or any other disease), I'm guessing that these organisations (as well as some other new ones) may well put together some compelling 'propaganda' of their own? I seem to recall that they have been pretty good at entering new markets and making a few quid.

    The characterisation of the electromagnetic/medical devices industry as a meek, underdog David to pharma's Goliath is pretty ridiculous.

  • Dr Mazzoni


    It is clear now that it was not a telecommunication device that may support a therapeutic application, it seems that the first injured industry here is the telecom industry.

    This application is for physician, not for service providers.

    Best regards

    Dr Mazzoni