Dr. Maryanne Demasi earned a Ph.D. in rheumatology from the University of Adelaide, but perhaps the most formative experience she had with the medical sciences occurred while she was an investigative journalist with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). During her tenure with the ABC, she produced a two-part series called “Heart of the Matter,” which challenged the role of cholesterol in heart disease and addressed the overprescription of statin drugs. The fallout from the series was not swift, but it was decisive. In this presentation, delivered on June 8, 2019, at a CrossFit Health event at CrossFit Headquarters, Demasi shares her personal experiences and the challenges she faced while trying to relay the limitations of statin data to the public.
Demasi recalls how, while performing research for her projects as a medical reporter, she would often do a deep dive into the science and … would come out with very disappointing conclusions.” “Over my career,” she explains, “I started to become a little dismayed with the quality of the science.” She describes uncovering methodological problems and argues that such problems contribute to the replication crisis, produce conflicting health recommendations, and lead to dwindling trust in medical professionals.
Demasi has devoted a considerable amount of time to researching and relaying the corruption inherent in what she terms the “Statin Wars.” By way of offering background on the “acrimonious debate … about statins,” she explains, “I think a lot of the problems started in the mid-80s when former U.S. President Ronald Reagan decided to significantly slash funding to the National Institutes of Health.” This shift, she claims, “allowed private industry to move in and start funding their own clinical trials.”
The problem with industry’s infiltration of the health sciences, she explains, became abundantly clear as she researched the “Statin Wars.” She notes the drug companies began to design their own clinical trials without oversight by unbiased parties. In addition, she explains, “we started to discover through legal suits that pharmaceutical companies were hiring marketing firms or getting marketing people to do the first drafts of their manuscripts that they would submit for peer review in order to give a positive spin on the trial data.” She notes that although such practices “might not sound ethical, it’s a perfectly legal thing to be doing.”
In the documentary series “Heart of the Matter,” she and her colleagues shared these findings and highlighted that the benefits of statins had been exaggerated while their side effects had been downplayed. Despite receiving accolades for hard-hitting reporting and carefully executed research, Demasi and her colleagues eventually started receiving backlash, first from the Australian Heart Foundation and then from the Cholesterol Treatment Trialists Collaboration (CTT). By December 2016, Demasi, along with the colleagues who worked on the series with her, was out of a job.
Reflecting on the experience, Demasi says, “I’m okay about this, and I wear it as a badge of honor. I think I did my job as a journalist.”
“I ask the questions without fear or favor,” she adds.
To read more about Demasi’s story in her own words, click here.