General Electric, one of the world’s biggest corporations, is using the London libel courts to gag a senior radiologist after he raised the alarm over the potentially fatal risks of one of its drugs. The multinational is suing Henrik Thomsen, a Danish academic, after he described his experiences of one of the company’s drugs as a medical “nightmare”. He said some kidney patients at his hospital contracted a potentially deadly condition after being administered the drug Omniscan. GE Healthcare, a British subsidiary of General Electric, has run up more than £380,000 in legal costs pursuing Thomsen. “I believe the lawsuit is an attempt to silence me,” he said last week. “It’s dangerous for the patient if we can’t frankly exchange views.”
The company admits its product has been linked to serious side effects in some patients, but said Thomsen accused the company of suppressing information in a presentation at a scientific congress in Oxford in October 2007.
A summary of Thomsen’s presentation for the High Court writ, provided by GE Healthcare, appears to show that it was an even-handed account of his clinical experience.
When asked by The Sunday Times to highlight any part of the presentation that explicitly stated wrongdoing by GE Healthcare, a spokeswoman for the company was unable to do so. The writ states that the defamation may have been “by way of innuendo”.
His case will trigger a fresh row over the draconian use of Britain’s libel laws to stifle scientific debate and silence critics. Thomsen now refuses to discuss the possible risks of the drug in any UK public forum. Evan Harris, a former hospital doctor and the Liberal Democrat science spokesman, who is leading the parliamentary campaign to reform the libel laws, said: “It is hard to conceive a stronger public interest than scientists and clinicians being able to discuss freely their concerns about drugs or devices used on patients. Libel laws should not be used in this way.”
More than 48m doses of Omniscan have been given worldwide and it is safe for the vast majority of people. It is one of a number of “contrast agents” containing the potentially toxic metal gadolinium, which are used to enhance images for magnetic resonance imaging scans. Omniscan and other products have been linked with a skin condition in kidney patients, known as nephrogenic systemic fibrosis. Sufferers can be confined to a wheelchair and may even die from related causes.
Regulators in Europe and the US are now taking action over the potential risk from Omniscan and two similar products. Five people in Britain have died from possible side effects after being administered Omniscan, according to the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency. Patients have launched legal actions in America involving more than 170 deaths where it is claimed Omniscan and similar drugs may have been a factor. Safety problems with the drugs have been highlighted in the US by the independent investigative news organisation ProPublica.
Paul Flynn, the Labour MP, said, “It is a scandal that a company should take action against someone acting in the interests of patients.” GE Healthcare said it had launched a libel action against Thomsen as a “last resort”. It is also suing Thomsen for an article in a medical magazine published in Brussels, but he said his name had been put on an article that he had not written.
The company said it encouraged scientific debate, but had to act when it was publicly defamed. It said it had worked hard to uncover incidents of any side effects from its drug, which may have inflated the number of cases linked specifically to Omniscan. It added that the product was safe for more than 99% of patients.