Corporate Funding of Health Research: Conflict of Interest for Professors

It is, I think, overall a very good thing that corporations provide funding for university-based health research. But it’s worth at least thinking about the effect that funding has on professors’ relationships with their students.

Here’s an interesting story about just that issue:

From The Harvard Crimson: Harvard Medical School Students Push to Codify Conflict of Interest Polices

Addressing a weekly clinic for “The Molecular and Cellular Basis of Medicine,” a required introductory course for first-year medical and dental students, Medical School professor Paul G. G. Richardson was accompanied by a patient diagnosed with myeloma, a potentially deadly blood cancer.

The patient was being successfully treated with a bortezomib-based therapy, a drug marketed as Velcade by the Cambridge-based Millennium Pharmaceuticals. Students said that during the clinic discussion, Richardson suggested bortezomib can now be used as a first-line treatment—meaning that physicians can prescribe use of the drug at diagnosis, rather than only as a second or third-line therapy when the disease has recurred.

Intrigued by his presentation, several students later looked up some of his peer-reviewed articles and found that Richardson was on Millennium’s advisory board—a potential conflict of interest that was not disclosed during the session with Richardson and his patient.

The story continues:

In response to the student concerns, the school’s curriculum committee revised the school’s student handbook last month to include a section of new policies mandating that faculty and students disclose all financial ties to pharmaceutical companies when discussing drugs developed by those companies.

But this being a blog about business ethics, I’m curious about how this looks, ethically speaking, from the point of view of the corporation providing the funding. Is it unethical — or even just ethically questionable — to put someone else in a conflict of interest? Granted, being in a conflict of interest is not, in itself, unethical. What matters is what you do about it. But it’s clearly best to try to avoid COI altogether — though that, admittedly, is just not always possible.

I guess this falls very generally into the very broad category of doing things that encourages, promotes, makes more likely, that someone else will do something bad. Think of suborning perjury. The lawyer who puts a witness on the stand, knowing that witness is planning to lie, is doing something very bad, even if she herself isn’t the one doing the lying. Now, I’m not saying there’s a direct parallel here. Far from it. As I said at the very beginning, it’s generally a good thing that companies sometimes fund professors’ research. The COIs that result are probably — often, at least — acceptable costs. But it’s at least worth asking: just how serious would a COI have to be before a drug company said, “No, we’re just not going to put you in that situation”?

Four books that I recommend highly on this topic:

3 comments so far

  1. Suresh Kumar G on

    Is bortezomib being made only by Millennium?Did Prof Paul Richardson expressly mention Velcade?If the treatment is effective, shouldn’t he have recommended it?These are some questions that come to my mind.Suresh Kumar G.

  2. Chris MacDonald on

    Suresh:Fair questions.As far as I can tell, yes it is only made by Millennium. If that’s the case, it doesn’t much matter whether he used the scientific name (bortezomib) or the trade name (Velcade).The question isn’t really whether he should have recommended the drug, but whether he should have recommended it to the exclusion of all other drugs (and whether he should have admitted to his students that he has a financial relationship with the maker of the drug).But it’s also worth keeping in mind that <>conflict of interest<> is not the same as <>bias<>: there’s nothing to suggest here that Prof. Richardson has any bias at all, or that he was trying to do anything other than teach his students to the best of his abilities. What matters here is whether his students could <>reasonably think<> he could be biased by his financial ties to Millennium — and how that perception could affect his students’ perception of <>him<>.Chris.

  3. Suresh Kumar G on

    I agree that a COI may exist here.But it seems to be of acceptable cost.We also agree that prima facie there is no evidence of bias.Yes, the students may, when appraised of his financial ties with Millennium, have a different perception of him. But I still back Prof. Richardson in what he has done, especially since he is taking positive steps in the treatment of myeloma. Why notlook at the funding of University health research by corporates as a necessary evil?

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