Friday, December 19, 2008

Is Nothing Sacred? - Questions of Commercial Influence on the Awarding of the Nobel Prize for Medicine

Many news outlets, but few in the US, have reported concerns about the integrity of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. As reported by the Toronto Star,

Swedish anti-corruption agents are investigating allegations that pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca influenced the awarding of this year's Nobel Prize in medicine.

'I have formally instigated, or started, a criminal investigation,' Swedish anti-corruption prosecutor Nils-Erik Schulz told the Star in a telephone interview from Stockholm yesterday.

Schulz's investigation was sparked by claims in the European press that AstraZeneca's sponsorship of two Nobel promotional companies – Nobel Media and Nobel Web – influenced the choice for this year's prize in medicine. As well, two Swedish academics on the committee have close ties to AstraZeneca – one sits on the company's board of directors, while the other was a former consultant to the pharmaceutical company.

Part of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded this fall to Harald zur Hausen, a German scientist who discovered the links between human papilloma viruses and cervical cancer. The discovery could be a financial bonanza for AstraZeneca, which holds the patents on ingredients in the vaccines used to fight the viruses.

AstraZeneca stands to make millions from Gardasil, made by Merck, as well as GlaxoSmithKline's Cervarix, thanks to patents it holds.

Not surprisingly, AstraZeneca and the Nobel Foundation denied doing anything wrong,

'Because the Nobel Committee of Karolinska Institute, and not the Nobel companies, elects candidates for the prize, AstraZeneca will not be able to influence who will be awarded the Nobel Prize, nor do we ever seek to,' Laura Woodin, manager of media relations for AstraZeneca in the U.S., said in a statement to the Star. Nobel Foundation director Michael Sohlman was equally adamant about the strict separation between fundraising and the selection of Nobel laureates.

'The foundation has 100 per cent confidence in the integrity of the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute, as we have in the other prize-awarding institutes,' Sohlman said in a telephone interview from Stockholm yesterday.

In my humble opinion, both these denials begged the question. At the least, it appears that at least one member of the committee that awards the prize in medicine is on the board of directors of AstraZeneca, a pharmaceutical company. Specifically, "Nobel Assembly member Bo Angelin sits on the company's board of directors, which pays $50,000 (Cdn) a year." As we have discussed in the past, beyond being remunerative, sitting on the board of directors of a for-profit company implies a duty to the stock-holders to maximize the profits of the company. Such a duty could create a conflict for someone who also votes on the awarding of a lucrative and extremely prestigious prize for medical scientific discoveries that could relate to the marketing of such a company's products. The presence of Dr Angelin on the committee which chose the Nobel Prize winners suggests at least the possibility that commercial concerns could affect the selection process. Furthermore, his presence suggests that there is no prohibition of directors of for-profit health care corporations from sitting on this committee. There may have been other committee members with other conflicts that further suggests commercial influence on the awarding of this most prestigious prize.

Is nothing sacred? It appears that the web of conflicts of interest in medicine and health care has spread to even the most renowned of its institutions. And now we must wonder whether even the Nobel Prize has been turned into a marketing opportunity.

See also comments by David Williams on the Health Business Blog, and the anonymous blogger on PharmaGossip.

No comments: