Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Professor and an Anti-Aging Tonic

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported on another variation on the theme of medical school faculty members with ties to industry:

A prominent anti-aging researcher quit the scientific advisory board of a dietary-supplement maker after spending six months helping to promote a syrup that hints at extending life.

Since August, David Sinclair, a professor at Harvard Medical School, lent his support to a Shaklee Corp. drink called the Vivix Cellular Anti-Aging Tonic, touted as 'the world's best anti-aging supplement.'

Following questions by The Wall Street Journal about his seeming endorsement of the product, Dr. Sinclair resigned from the board last week and now says his name has been misused in connection with Vivix, which contains the antioxidant resveratrol. Shaklee, based in Pleasanton, Calif., disputes this and says he approved all uses of his name in its advertising material.

In obtaining the backing of Dr. Sinclair this summer, Shaklee scored a coup. Dr. Sinclair knows resveratrol; in 2006, he led a study showing the molecule could counteract the ill effects of overfeeding laboratory mice. One notable benefit: resveratrol let overweight mice live about 114 weeks on average, compared with 102 weeks without the chemical.

In August, Dr. Sinclair joined Shaklee's Scientific Advisory Board, a paid position, and enthusiastically introduced Vivix to the company's sales force in New Orleans. He joined Shaklee's chief doctor in a joint radio appearance, and his picture and name are often used on Vivix sales sites run by Shaklee's salespeople.

Shaklee declined to say how much it paid Dr. Sinclair to be on the advisory board.

Dr. Sinclair -- who has a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular genetics but isn't a medical doctor -- now says he was misinterpreted. 'I have submitted my resignation to Shaklee and exercised my right to terminate my agreement,' he wrote in an e-mailed response to questions. 'This decision was prompted in significant part by my recent realization as to how my association with Shaklee and my research have been used contrary to the intents and purposes of my agreement.'

'To my dismay I have found numerous uses of my name and reputation on the Web and in other media that implies endorsement by me of Shaklee's Vivix product,' he wrote.

In a statement, Shaklee said that 'every implied product endorsement was in Dr. Sinclair's own words and every Shaklee use of his name -- whether in print or video -- was pre-approved by him in keeping with our agreement.'

It is not clear from this story whether [Associate] Professor Sinclair initially signed off on specific uses of his name and reputation to promote the Shaklee product. But it does seem clear that with his approval or not, his name, and his academic reputation, including his position at Harvard, were used to hawk a product for its supposed anti-aging effects. This continues the sorry story of medical academics' reputations being used to market health care products.

But watch the video of Sinclair speaking to a large, cheering, whistling audience of Shaklee sales representatives, on a huge stage, with his name in huge letters behind him, and after a brassy musical introduction. (The video is embedded in the WSJ article, or can be found here.) As the WSJ reported, he said, apparently enthusiastically,

Together, as part of the Shaklee family...we can take this technology right now, to our friends, to our family, and really have the benefits of this new technology right now, within our lifetimes, and you'll learn more about the Vivix product later

So whether there were some promotions that used Sinclair's name or words without his authorization, in this obviously commercial, and Hollywood-style setting, Sinclair appeared not as a sober scientist, but as a rousing pitchman. Watch the video and it is hard to disbelieve that he willingly, enthusiastically was using his academic status and authority to promote Shaklee's commercial interests.

Academics have long been trusted to seek and disseminate the truth in a spirit of free enquiry. Academics who use their reputations to sell products, and take advantage of their reputation thus to enrich themselves, violate this trust. When the academics who do so are medical academics (even if they are not physicians), they also violate the trust of patients.

Those of us who care about the future of academic medicine need to see that medical faculty and academic medical institutions disentangle themselves from those who sell health care products or services.


Anonymous said...

Yes, I read about this. Unbelievable.

Anonymous said...

This post covered Dr. Sinclair, and more importantly, examined the evidence to help sort out sales from medicine: