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On the morning of May 3, 2010, three agents of the Food and Drug Administration descended upon the Houston office of Cetero Research, a firm that conducted research for drug companies worldwide.
Lead agent Patrick Stone, now retired from the FDA, had visited the Houston lab many times over the previous decade for routine inspections. This time was different. His team was there to investigate a former employee's allegation that the company had tampered with records and manipulated test data.
When Stone explained the gravity of the inquiry to Chinna Pamidi, the testing facility's president, the Cetero executive made a brief phone call. Moments later, employees rolled in eight flatbed carts, each double-stacked with file boxes.
The documents represented five years of data from some 1,400 drug trials. Pamidi bluntly acknowledged that much of the lab's work was fraudulent, Stone said. "You got us," Stone recalled him saying.
Based partly on records in the file boxes, the FDA eventually concluded that the lab's violations were so "egregious" and of such a "pervasive nature" that studies conducted there between April 2005 and August 2009 might be worthless.
The health threat was potentially serious: About 100 drugs, including sophisticated chemotherapy compounds and addictive prescription painkillers, had been approved for sale in the United States at least in part on the strength of Cetero Houston's tainted tests. The vast majority, 81, were generic versions of brand-name drugs on which Cetero scientists had run critical tests to determine whether the copies did, in fact, act the same in the body as the originals. For example, one of these generic drugs was ibuprofen, sold as gelatin capsules by one of the nation's largest grocery-store chains for months before the FDA received assurance they were safe.
The rest were new medications that required so much research to win approval that the FDA says Cetero's tests were rarely crucial. Stone said he expected the FDA to move swiftly to compel new testing and to publicly warn patients and doctors.