Alastair Benbow was once GlaxoSmithKline's mouthpiece when it came to defending the safety (and efficacy) of Seroxat (known as Paxil in the US) - but where is he now?
Benbow is now Chief Medical Officer and Head of Operational Services at Kinapse, an expert advisory, capability building and operational services to the world’s leading life sciences organisations.
Benbow's role, according to his profile page on the Kinapse website, is to be accountable to the CEO and Board of Kinapse for the integrity and effectiveness of Kinapse’s system for medical governance. His role as Head of Operational Services covers Kinapse Regulatory, Medical Writing and Information, Clinical Trial Disclosure and Pharmacovigilance functions.
Have you finished laughing yet?
Apologies if you have choked on your cornflakes.
Responsible for Clinical Trial Disclosure, Pharmacovigilance and Medical Writing?
Other employees of Kinapse include:
Head of Strategy - Suzanne Budsworth
Senior Pharmacovigilance Scientist - James Whitehead
Regulatory Associate - Kapil Pal
Senior Manager, Regulatory Affairs - Stuart Goodall
All are previous employees of GlaxoSmithKline.
Former Management Consultant at Kinapse, Stephen Mayhew, is now Head, R&D Strategy Development and Programme Management Office at GlaxoSmithKline.
Revolving door anyone?
Benbow is infamous (whether he likes it or not) for defending Seroxat and playing down the suicide link and other side effects associated with it.
He also took umbrage to a video slide-show I created about him back in 2008 [Seroxat Secrets]
Here's part of a transcript featuring Benbow and BBC investigative journalist, Shelley Jofre. Much of what is transcribed here never went to air.
Q = Jofre
A = Benbow
Transcript GSK Tape - Panorama Interview - Dr Alastair Benbow 9 October 2002
Q. Let us move on. What has the company done about the Wyoming verdict?
A. As I told you before, in this matter because of a confidentiality agreement between the family and GSK I am not able to specifically comment on the mitigation, but what I can say is that there is no reliable clinical evidence that Seroxat causes violence, aggression or homicide. This tragic, tragic case is something that does occur from time to time in patients who are depressed...
Q. This man had no history of suicidal thoughts or tendencies. The jurors sat and listened to all the evidence and decided that there were four deaths that were mainly caused by Seroxat. Your company was found guilty of negligence. You cannot ignore that.
A. No, and nor would we want to ignore it. This was a tragic case but we remain firmly convinced that Seroxat did not cause the tragic events in this case.
Q. So the jurors got it wrong!
A. No, I am not saying that. What I am saying - as I have said before - is that there is a confidentiality agreement between the family and GSK in this matter and I cannot comment on the specifics of this but we remain firmly convinced that Seroxat did not cause the tragic events in this case.
Q. It was pretty clear-cut. There was nothing else to explain his behaviour. He had only been on the drug two days and he clearly had a reaction that threw him into mental turmoil and made him behave in this way.
A. Yes, but there is a lot of speculation in the question you asked there but as I said I cannot comment specifically on this case because of a confidentiality agreement between the family and GSK. What I can say is that looking at all the data and the clinical trials there is no reliable evidence that Seroxat causes violence, aggression or homicide.
Q. All the evidence was produced in the trial. I am sure your company more or less produced the best evidence that was available. The jurors decided Seroxat was responsible for those four deaths and that is pretty serious.
A. As I have said before, I cannot comment on the specifics of the case...
Q. You cannot tell me that the clinical trials support Seroxat as not being linked to aggression or suicide?
A. Yes, I can say that. The clinical trial data and spontaneous adverse event data for reporting over the last ten years since Seroxat was made available in the UK do not support the finding that Seroxat causes aggression, violence or homicide.
Q. All of this data was presented to the jurors so they had ample opportunity to hear arguments on both sides and they felt Seroxat was responsible for the deaths.
A. As I say I cannot comment on the legal situation because of a confidentiality...
Q. I am not asking you to comment on the legal situation. I am asking you to comment on the fact that your company's drug was found responsible for four deaths.
A. As I said, I cannot comment on the specific situation but what I can say, quite clearly, is that when you look at the data from clinical trials and from the data in use in tens of millions of patients in 1999 that there is no reliable evidence that Seroxat causes violence, homicide or aggression.
Q. Is your company just going to ignore this verdict as if it never happened?
A. No we take very seriously any event that occurs when patients are taken off...
Q. What have you done to make sure that this does not happen again?
A. We have looked very, very carefully at the data, and as I say the data clearly shows that there is no reliable evidence that Seroxat causes violence, aggression or homicide.
Q. What does the warning in the patient leaflet mean then?
A. What do you mean?
Q. The warning about self-harm and suicide that is on the Seroxat leaflet, what does it mean?
A. As you will know, in patients who are depressed there is a significant risk of suicide and self-harm. That risk of suicide is at its worst when people have their worst depression, and that is often when people go to the doctor...
Q. Why would the risk of suicide increase once they start taking Seroxat?
A. No, I am not saying it increases when they start to take Seroxat; I am saying people are at risk of suicide early in treatment because it takes a while for an anti-depressant to work.
Q. The suggestion in the warning is that there is an increased risk in the first few weeks of being on Seroxat, but you say it is nothing to do with your drug?
A. What I am saying is that there is an increased risk of suicide early in the treatment of depression. Whatever the treatment, or indeed if there is no treatment there is an increased risk of suicide, and this is a very...
Q. So it is just a co-incidence that the increased risk of suicide starts when they start taking Seroxat?
A. No, what I am saying is that there is an increased risk of suicide even if patients receive no therapy. This is a fact of people who have depression. The reality is that many people with a severe depression have a very low mood and loss of energy. As people start to recover their energy and mood encourages...
Q. But they are not recovering, you say, until a few weeks after they start the Seroxat.
A. Early on in treatment the major affects of anti-depressants take a week or two to start, but the reality is that energy levels are one of the first things that start to improve, but mood comes later.
Q. Is it not that they get agitated?
A. Not at all. Not at all.
Q. It sounds to me here as though you are trying to have it both ways. You are trying to say the risk increases when you start taking the drug but it is nothing to do with the drug. It is meaningless warning.
A. No the warning is there, and has been agreed with the regulatory authorities, and it is basically to tell doctors, 'Look, you have a patient who is depressed. They are at risk of suicide. Don't just think just because you have started them on anti-depressants that they are not going to remain at risk of suicide immediately. The fact is that antidepressants take a while to work. If you look at the data what does the data show? The data shows that Seroxat reduces suicidal ?hydration and thought. Over the past ten years - or the ten years between 1990 and 2000 - with the increasing use of antidepressants, suicide rates in England and Wales have fallen by 15%...
Q. Are you taking credit for that?
A. I am saying that the increased used of anti-depressants, the better diagnosis of depression and the better treatment that is available - yes, that has contributed to the fall in suicide rates.
Q. Perhaps over the long term drugs like Seroxat are useful for avoiding suicide and reducing suicide rates but what we are talking about is a window in the first few weeks where there is quite a lot of evidence that people can become agitated, restless and anxious. It seems to correspond exactly with the period that you are saying there might be an increased risk of suicide but you are saying it is nothing to do with your drug.
A. No, I must disagree with the comments you made. There is not a lot of evidence to suggest that patients are getting agitated and restless and anxious. The reality is that anti-depressants do take a short while to work, and during that first few weeks, when patients are taking therapy, doctors should be aware that patients are at risk of suicide, because of their underlying depression.
Q. So it is not an increased risk. I do not understand what you are saying. If you are saying, 'Until the anti-depressant starts working they are at the same risk of suicide as they have always been' then that is one thing. However, your warning says there is an increased risk of suicide...
A. What I am saying is the greatest risk to patients of committing suicide is in those who are severely depressed.
Q. But in those first few weeks of... [talking simultaneously] start Seroxat?
A. No, the most severely depressed patients are those that have just presented their doctor and just started on therapy.
Q. Of course not everyone take Seroxat for depression and we have spoken to someone who took Seroxat for panic attacks and he began to self-harm in the first few weeks of taking it, something he had never even dreamed of doing before.
A. Seroxat is indeed available for a range of depression and anxiety related disorders, all have clear criteria for laying down exactly what the conditions are. There is a range of different conditions - panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety disorder etc. Many of them are associated with depression and the same patients will be at risk of suicide and...
Q. Again is it just a coincidence this behaviour would start a few weeks after taking Seroxat?
A. No I am not saying it is a coincidence. I am saying it is a reality of depression and other related disorders...
Q. Panic attacks?
A. Yes, panic attacks and...
Q. I thought that is a link to self-harm.
A. Panic attacks are linked to depression, which is linked to self-harm.
**At this point Jofre pushes home the point about Seroxat withdrawal - She then continues with...
Q. Well, let us move on. Here is a drug that is linked to suicide and self-harm, a drug that thousands of people say they are addicted to; do you seriously think it should be given to children?
A. Let me just correct something in your question. There are a number of allegations you made there none of which are correct. In terms of whether we think Seroxat should be made available to children, absolutely. Two percent of children, 4% of adolescents, will develop depression. The adolescents are at particular risk of suicide.
Q. You think this is safe for children?
A. I think we need to do the trials to determine this. We have an obligation to make our medicines available to those patients at need. Adolescents are some of the patients who are most at need of anti-depressants. Suicide in adolescents is the third leading cause of death. Do not trivialise depression for those patients. We have a strong obligation to study our medicine in these patients to see if we can help them.
Q. In a recent study that Glaxo funded more than 10% of children developed psychiatric problems within eight weeks of taking Seroxat.
A. I think you will have to tell me a little more about the specific study so that I can understand your question.
Q. It was funded by Glaxo and carried out in America - the biggest ever study of Paxil in depressed children and more than 10% of children developed psychiatric problems within a few weeks of taking Seroxat.
A. I think in any study a proportion of patients (as in this particular study) where patients were either taking Seroxat, or Imipramine, or a placebo, a proportion of patients will develop adverse effects in the course of the study.
Q. There were far more children on Seroxat than on the other drug, or on sugar pills who developed these psychiatric problems.
A. There are a number of different elements that you lump together in psychiatric disorders.
Q. I will run through the list of problems if you like. Five of the children suffered suicidal thoughts and gestures. There was aggressiveness. There were behavioural problems at school. None of this sounds very safe; it all sounds quite worrying for the children who are on Seroxat.
A. Actually not because some of those symptoms were also seen on the patients taking Imipramine and placebos.
Q. Not as frequently.
A. Maybe not as frequently, but they still suffered. This is typical of the sort of symptoms that occur in this population of patients. This is a difficult population to treat and you will be aware that for many medicines there is no licensed implication for use in children so much of prescribing in children is done off-label. We firmly believe that we have an obligation to study our medicine to treat population to examine the safety and the efficacy of that medicine.
Q. I appreciate that but there were many problems on Seroxat than on the other drug or the sugar pills.
A. Actually the majority of those side effects were relatively minor.
Q. No, a lot of these children were hospitalised it was so serious.
A. If you look at the proportion of patients who withdrew from therapy - and you can see less than 10% had to withdraw from Seroxat - more than 30% withdrew from the other active therapy and just under 10% withdrew from the dummy.
Q. It is heart complaints with the other drug, and I understand that, but-
A. But that is the sort of therapy that is the alternative, which is why it is very important that we study Seroxat in this group of children who are most at risk from suicide.
Q. What we are talking about here though are psychiatric side effects, the sorts of side effects that can lead to suicide and there were far more children on Seroxat suffering these problems than on the other drug or sugar pills.
A. What you are trying to do is make a link here with the adult data. The adult data clearly shows that there is no reliable scientific evidence that Seroxat causes suicide.
Q. But why should it be that so many more children should suffer these side effects on Seroxat than the other drug or sugar pills.
A. Actually, if you look at the more serious of those side effects the number difference was very small, and the sort that you would expect to see in clinical trials. On one trial there may be more than on another, in another it will go the other way.
Q. And for the 10% of the children on Seroxat who had these side effects you are not worried that it was caused by the drug?
A. The vast majority of these patients did not have side effects significantly enough to withdraw from the treatment. The reality is that in this population depression is an extremely serious condition and in many cases leads to suicide.
Q. I appreciate that.
A. Are we worried by the side effect profile? We take the safety of our medicines extremely seriously and we will look very carefully at this, and the combination of other data, to decide whether this medicine is suitable for children. My belief is that it will be but because there is a lack of treatment for this serious condition that this medicine will be suitable for a range of children as well as adults.
Q. You cannot be sure that the 10% of children on Seroxat who suffered these problems did not suffer them because of Seroxat can you? You cannot be sure about that.
A. One can never be sure of anything in medicine, but just because you take a medicine and you get an effect does not mean to say cause and effect because the same sort of symptoms occur with the dummy pills.
Q. That is why if you compare it to another drug and the sugar pills, in that comparison Seroxat was much worse.
A. In that comparison the proportion of patients withdrawing from the study due to adverse events was much lower on Seroxat than one of the other potential treatments available.
Q. There are 60 psychiatric side effects - the sorts of side effects that are linked with suicide and self-harm.
A. Let us look at the totality of the adverse event profile because it is the total risk and input that is important.
Q. We are considering the link with suicide, and this evidence points very strongly to the fact that more children are suicidal and had suicidal gestures in fact on Seroxat than the other drug.
A. With respect the totality of the data is important. What you are talking about are five patients out of the 275 on Seroxat, three patients on Imipramine. That difference is not significant and one patient had a placebo.
Q. No, I am talking about five children. The figures are-
A. I have given you the figures. Five on Seroxat, three on Imipramine and one on placebo.
Q. There were children out of 93 children on Seroxat who had suicidal thoughts and gestures, another five out that 93 had serious psychiatric side effects. Do you not think parents would be worried about that if their child were to be given this drug?
A. I believe that what parents would be more worried about is the risk that their children had of committing suicide and other symptoms of severe depression if no treatment was available. In my opinion parents want treatments to be properly evaluated during clinical trials before their children are given any medicine.
Q. But the evidence here suggests that their children might be at more risk of suicide if they go on Seroxat.
A. No, the evidence is not there. There is no statistical difference between the groups. The reality of the situation is that in this trial Seroxat was generally well tolerated by this difficult to treat population.
Q. You are not concerned about this and you do not think parents should be concerned about this?
A. What I am saying is that we are attempting to study Seroxat in this difficult to treat population. If, and when, we demonstrate the efficacy and the safety of the product, then the data will be submitted to the regulatory authorities with a view to getting a licence so that these patients and their doctors have another treatment available to them to treat this difficult disease.
Q. You would like it to be licensed for children?
A. Of course it must be driven by the data. There are many times we do clinical trials where you find that the balance of risk and benefit is not capable, in which case you do not try and get a license. The reality in this situation is the data we have generated so far is favourable. There is more benefit than risk in this population but until we have developed all the clinical trials, and done a full package of information, and adequately studied this drug in this population we cannot say that.
Q. Are you satisfied then that your company, generally, has done everything it can to keep patients properly informed about the negative side of the drug?
A. Absolutely, and it is not something we just sit and watch. Our summary of product characteristics is a living document. You start with a very limited number of healthy volunteers. Then you develop the clinical trials in thousands of patients. Then you make it available to tens of millions of patients around the world. As time moves on you collect more information and more data becomes available, and as a result we regularly change the information, which we provide to prescribers and patients for all our medicines, and of course for Seroxat as well. We will continue to do that. We will continue to monitor the safety of our medicines. We will make changes to the information to prescribers and patients, driven by facts and data not by anecdote.
Here's some brief segments of Benbow in action. The other 'Alasdair' in this short video is Alasdair Breckenridge. Both Breckenridge and Benbow are seen here defending Seroxat.
Breckenridge was the former Chairman of the British drug regulator, the MHRA. Before joining them he worked at GlaxoSmithKline.