Friday, July 14, 2006

Widespread Conflicts of Interest at Stanford: the Dean Responds

In an a commentary fo the San Jose Mercury News, Dr Philip A Pizzo, the Dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine responded to the series of articles in that newspaper documenting widespread conflicts of interest at the Medical School, which we posted about here and here. Some key quotes:

What would be the cost to the health of the American public if such ties between academia and industry were severed?

It should be noted that the federal government has explicitly promoted these ties since 1980, when Congress enacted the Bayh-Dole act, which authorized and encouraged universities to hold ownership of inventions made under federal funding. In fact this law mandates universities and private industry to work together to bring the fruits of university research to the public. This process has resulted in many medical innovations and advances that have improved the lives of millions of Americans.

There are now some 1,000 therapies and technologies that are based on university-licensed discoveries.

Of course, collaboration between university researchers and private companies carries with it the potential for conflicts of interest. The July 9 article describes one way Stanford addresses this: by requiring faculty members to disclose potential conflicts, regardless of the dollar amount of the financial interest.

But disclosure is far from the only strategy that the Stanford School of Medicine uses to protect the public's interest. When we identify a significant conflict, we take steps to eliminate, mitigate or manage it. These steps include modifying the research plan, disclosing the conflict to the public, disqualifying a faculty member from participating in all or a portion of a research project and in some cases requiring the faculty member to sever a relationship with industry.

As for the July 10 article, it is important to point out that Dr. Alan F. Schatzberg's research over the past 25 years has been consistently subject to rigorous peer review by scientific leaders at the National Institutes of Health and throughout the nation. His research findings have been published in highly respected peer-reviewed medical and scientific journals.

It is misleading to air criticism of his pilot studies for lack of statistical significance when, in fact, the studies were exploratory and not designed to show statistical significance in the first place. More important, and above all, through his research and care of patients, Dr. Schatzberg is a man devoted to alleviating the pain and suffering of those who face the challenge of the most severe and chronic forms of depression.

Dr Pizzo's response did not seem to address the points made in our previous posts about the conflicts at Stanford. (Of course, he probably has not read our posts.)

It also seems important to note that criticizing conflicts of interests does not mean criticizing the general concept of industry-academic collaboration. However, there are many ways in which universities and corporations can interact that minimize such conflicts. For example, for-profits can sponsor research at universities, but need not control the design and implementation of studies, and the analysis and dissemination of their results.

However, the examples described in the San Jose Mercury News were not simply of academic researchers collaborating with industry. They included researchers and academic leaders who owned substantial numbers of company stock options, who had corporate administrative titles, or who sat on corporate boards while doing research on the companies' products, or as full-time academics expressing opinions on topics relevant to the companies' products. It is not clear why university researchers need to get stock options, administrative positions, or board memberships from corporations in order to work collaboratively with them.

Furthermore, how can an academic be "full-time" while working for industry in an administrative position, or getting the sort of incentives that corporations usually only give to top management and key employees? At a minimum, a person in such a situation should acknowledge being only a part-time academic.

Finally, an academic who also works for industry ought to make completely transparent what masters he or she serves when expressing opinions about topics relevant to the company's product or service. Such opinions may be regarded differently than those from true full-time academics. But that's life.

However, what sort of trust is inspired when an author of scientific articles about a drug turns out to be not just a full-time university professor with some "financial interest" in the company that makes the drug, but the Chairman of the Board of the company?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Via The Wall Street Journal July 10:

"Lee S Cohen a Harvard Medical School professor and director of the perinatal and reproductive program at Massachusetts General Hospital is a longtime consultant to three antidepressant makers, a paid consultant for seven of them and has his research work funded by four drug makers.

Dr. Cohen said his industry relationships have no influence on his research work or public comments on the issue."

And if you believe this I have a bride I would like to sell you.

Steve Lucas