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Corporate cash & campus labs

The credibility of university research is on the line as industry steps up its funding

(Page 3 of 3)



Mildred Cho, a senior research scholar at the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University, took a different tack. Her 1996 study found that 98 percent of university studies of new drug therapies funded by the pharmaceutical industry reported that those new therapies were more effective than standard drugs. By comparison, just 79 percent of studies without industry financing found the new drugs to be more effective.

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Other researchers are disquieted, too.

"There has been in some fields a substantial, industrial-commercial influence," says David Blumenthal, director of Massachusetts General Hospital's Institute for Health Policy and a professor at Harvard Medical School. In a 1998 study, he and colleagues found that 43 percent of scientists - many of them at university medical centers or schools - had received at least one research-related gift. About two-thirds said the gift had been important to their research.

Such conflicts are hardly confined to the medical field. In his 1997 book, "The Heat Is On," Ross Gelbspan cites professors for not disclosing that coal and oil companies had funded their studies, which were used to undercut arguments in favor of reducing greenhouse gases.

Meanwhile, back at Berkeley, the Novartis funding is winning converts. Despite what one university official described as "lingering resentment," only two of 31 faculty members in the Berkeley department have declined to seek grants ranging from $60,000 to $200,000 to fund their research, according to the just-issued report.

A need for more disclosure

Will the scientists who do accept corporate funding disclose that information when they publish their research?

Pressure has been building at the federal level for tough new disclosure requirements since the 1999 death of Jesse Gelsinger, a teenage volunteer in the clinical trial of a gene-therapy drug at the University of Pennsylvania. In that case, a researcher had a financial interest in the drug's success. (The death this month of a volunteer in a Johns Hopkins University asthma study is being investigated, but no information has surfaced suggesting any conflict of interest in that federally funded study).

At a meeting last fall, scientists debated whether and how much to disclose about such interests to potential patient volunteers, but could not agree. Researchers receiving federal grants must disclose any income greater than $10,000 from a corporation. But that rule does not apply when companies do all the funding. And even when scientists do report, it is usually only to the university itself, which often does not disclose such financial ties. One ray of hope: The New England Journal of Medicine recently admitted that it had failed to disclose 19 authors' conflicts of interest - and toughened its disclosure policy.

More disclosure at all levels is needed, Dr. Blumenthal argues. The long-term risk, he says, is nothing less than a loss of public confidence that could permanently undermine support for universities.

"There is a need for guidelines and protections to assure the public that commercial motives are not excessive," he says. "It won't be hard to do that if we could get the universities to take the long view.... But in the heat of battle, it's hard to do."

E-mail claytonm@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor