Friday, February 19, 2010

Deja Vu All Over Again - Sheffield Researcher Under Threat for Trying to Present Data that Offends Research Sponsor

It's deja vu all over again.  A case reported (so far only) in the UK Times Higher Education Supplement of a biomedical researcher apparently threatened because she tried to present data that did favor a particular commercial health care product. Here is the summary:
An academic has risked the wrath of her university by submitting results to a forthcoming conference without permission.

The University of Sheffield has claimed that the submission has been made in breach of a contract it has with a pharmaceutical company, which funds work in the scholar's field.

Guirong Jiang, a research radiologist who has worked at Sheffield for 13 years, is due to face a disciplinary hearing over her actions this week.

Her findings - submitted to a symposium of the European Calcified Tissue Society (ECTS), to be held in Glasgow in June - add to the debate over what some have claimed is a distortion in the field of osteoporosis caused by the over-diagnosis of vertebral fractures.

Here are more particulars:
Sheffield has censured her for making the submission without the consent of her supervisor, Richard Eastell, head of Sheffield's Academic Unit of Bone Metabolism.

It said her actions breached the terms of a 2007 contract the unit has with pharmaceutical manufacturer Sanofi-Aventis to conduct studies relating to the osteoporosis treatment risedronate, which is sold as the drug Actonel.

It also said Dr Jiang failed to follow 'reasonable requests' to withdraw the submission.

Dr Jiang said she believed her results should be published as they had not been reflected in the unit's previous output.

She added that last December she was informed that her contract would not be renewed when it came to an end this March, which she said had prompted her to throw caution to the wind and publish without permission.

She has queried whether her work is bound by Sheffield's Sanofi-Aventis contract, which stipulates that the company must be allowed to review manuscripts and abstracts prior to publication.

She pointed out that the work was carried out in 2002 when the unit's risedronate work was funded by Procter & Gamble in partnership with Aventis. Dr Jiang added that she had not seen or signed the full Sanofi-Aventis contract.

Dr Jiang is still under threat:
The disciplinary hearing, scheduled to take place on 18 February, will consider the allegation that Dr Jiang 'acted inappropriately in making a direct submission of an abstract to a journal outside unit protocol and in contravention of the terms of the research contract'.

It will also consider the charge that she 'failed to follow a request by her head of unit and head of department to rectify her actions', which 'aggravated a situation which otherwise could have been quickly resolved'.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, academics had the expectation that they could publish or present their research without first acquiring the express approval of their academic superiors (at least as long as their work was original, the research project was under their control, and that they had properly protected the rights of any human subjects). Furthermore, in at least the US, academics are citizens who expect to have free speech.

But as academic institutions became more enamored of and dependent on "external funding," faculty were increasingly pressured to do only sponsored research. The growing dependence on sponsored research allowed the sponsors to try to get more control over how research was done.

In the 1990s, there were several important cases in North America in which academic researchers tried to present or publish results that clashed with their research sponsors' vested interests. Doing so resulted in lesser or greater threats to the faculty. Two of the classic cases of research suppression in the 1990's demonstrated this issue.

* In the "David Kern case," a textile manufacturer, Microfibres Inc., tried to prevent Dr. David Kern, a general internist and occupational medicine physicians at Memorial Hospital of Rhode Island and faculty member at Brown University, from presenting an abstract that described a case-series of a new pulmonary disease, flock-workers lung, that affected workers at Microfibres Inc. factories. Kern did present the abstract, but under a threat, never carried out, of law-suit, Memorial Hospital of Rhode Island removed Kern as head of the Occupational Medicine program, and refused to renew his contract, even though he was an Associate Professor. Brown University was unable to reverse these moves by the hospital, and Brown officials blamed Kern for signing an agreement to protect trade secrets, even though the agreement was unrelated to the research Kern did on the disease, and his research did not obviously reveal any trade secrets. [1-4]

* In the "Nancy Olivieri case," Apotex, a pharmaceutical company, acted against Dr. Nancy Olivieri for revealing preliminary data from a trial of deferiprone, a chelating agent for the treatment of iron overload in thalassemia, suggesting that the drug was often ineffective in treating iron overload, and appeared to be associated with hepatic fibrosis. Ultimately, a report by the Canadian Association of University Teachers also held that her academic freedom was abridged, in the context of a negotiation between the University of Toronto and Apotex over a large donation, and that the hospital harassed Dr. Olivieri during her dispute with Apotex (link here for report)
In the early 21st century, there was a case in the UK with spooky similarites to the present case: at the same university involved in the present case, and with at least one participant in common with that case.  About a year after we started Health Care Renewal, in late 2005, we wrote multiple posts about the complex and unfortunate case of Dr Aubrey Blumsohn's attempts to keep a research project honest. Our most recent summary of the case was here. Dr Blumsohn was also doing clinical research on the drug Actonel, again at the University of Sheffield.  He was denied access to the very data he had collected, and to analyses of the data by Procter and Gamble, the then manufacturer of the drug and sponsor of the research.  Dr Blumsohn found that Procter and Gamble seemed to be arranging for ghost-writers to author abstracts about the research based on these hidden analyses.  After he complained to numerous officials at Sheffield, including Dr Richard Eastell, to no avail, he spoke to the press, and thereafter lost his academic position.  The case was just recapped in an interview of Dr Blumsohn published in the British Medical Journal(5).
So we seem to have made little progress.  Most clinical research at academic medical institutions is sponsored by firms that make drugs and devices.  The firms try to secure contracts that give them control over most aspects of the research.  Thus, they can determine how the research is designed, implemented, ana analyzed.  If the resulting manipulation still does not yield results that make the firms' products look good, the sponsors can then just suppress them.  Academics who naively think it is their duty to find and disseminate the truth are in jeopardy when they attempt to present or publish results that challenge their research sponsors' vested interests.
Suppression of clinical research, however, is bad for patients and honest health care professionals, since it misleads about the benefits and harms of tests and treatments.  Suppression of clinical research dishonors research subjects who volunteer for studies, often at risk to themselves, thinking they may help to advance science and clinical care.  Suppression of clinical research undermines the fundamental mission of academia: to seek out and disseminate the truth.
Those who truly want better health care, here in the US and globally, should advocate for clinical research done without the influence of those with vested interests in how the research comes out. 
Thanks to an anonymous Health Care Renewal scout who located the Times article. 

1. DG Kern, RS Crausman, TH Durand et al. Flock worker's lung: chronic interstitial lung disease in the nylon flocking industry. Ann Intern Med 1998; 129: 261-272. (link here)
2. Shuchman M. Secrecy in science: the flock worker's lung investigation. Ann Intern Med 1998; 129: 341-344. (link here)
3. Marsh DJ. Intimidation of researchers by special interest groups. N Engl J Med 1997; 337: 1317-1318. (link here)
4. Shuchman M. Consequences of blowing the whistle in medical research. Ann Intern Med 2000; 132: 1013-1015. (link here)
5.  Cyer C. Aubrey Blumsohn: academic who took on industry. Brit Med J 2009; 339:b5293. (link here)


Anonymous said...

It appears there are a number of issues concerning academic standards in the UK. Recent popular press reports have highlighted the loss of data, and questionable collection methods, concerning the whole climate change issue.

Having a messy office is no more an excuse than we have a contract with a firm and need to protect their interest.

Steve Lucas

Wally said...

It isn't just inconvenient truths about funded research that get suppressed. I have seen first hand where results that reflect poorly on big money making services at a hospital are vigorously suppressed by administration. In the case of funded research, at least requires some sort of oversite. There is no oversight of a hospital's internal operations, no matter how bad the results.

Anonymous said...

Pfizer's Razor (as opposed to Ockham's):

"[negative outcomes] must not be multiplied beyond necessity [as quarterly earnings may be impacted negatively]"

with its derivative:
Parsimony of Publication: when faced with publishing choices, choose only the POSITIVE studies, as readers are not interested or have to time read boring negative results...

Anonymous said...

Should we be concerned about potential conflicts of interest when pharma and medical device companies sponsor academic research? University hospitals should not be whoring themselves out as extensions of the companies' marketing divisions.

Francois Theberge said...

If we cannot trust what gets published, how can science survive?