Monday, May 25, 2009

Industry's influence on medical research

How much is medical research skewed by its funding? An NIH-funded study out of the University of Virginia sought to answer that question, representing what they say is “the first recent attempt to gather data from the leading research institutions on financial arrangements between medical school investigators and industry.”

The study targeted the 33 US universities currently receiving the most funding for biomedical and clinical studies. It asked researchers about their funding sources, and about those sources’ potential links to “questionable research integrity practices.”

66% of the 703 researchers who responded said they had received industry support for their research—anything from large grants to lab equipment to personal gifts. More senior researchers, not surprisingly, received greater amounts of funding. Males were also more likely to receive industry support than females—77% versus 23% (although this could be viewed as a confound of, or variation on, the “senior researcher” result, since more males are likely senior researchers).

The study’s most significant finding, according to its authors, was that 9% of respondents had “first-hand knowledge” of “compromises to the well-being of research subjects” because of industry sponsorship. Although it’s a small percentage, they argue that “the concern is not that compromising the well-being of human research participants happens frequently but that it happens at all. There should be zero tolerance for compromising the well-being of human research participants in any study, regardless of the source of the study's support.”

35% of respondents noted “compromises to research initiatives,” 28% to “publication”, and 25% to “interpretation of data”.

The found that studies’ ties to industry aren’t always reported to research subjects—meaning that subjects haven’t been informed of researchers’ potential conflicts of interest. This could constitute a breach of ethics by researchers.

They also found that researchers often consider industry support critical to carrying out their work, at all. And, unfortunately, those researchers who found industry support more critical were the most likely to have “first-hand knowledge of,” or be close to, compromises to research integrity.

Studies reporting pro-industry biases have been circulating for years. Harvard Medical School’s Eric Campbell, quoted in an article on the study, expressed hope that further work will examine “the extent to which these [attempts to influence researchers] happen from other funding sources as well.” Patient advocacy groups and government agencies—such as the NIH, who funded this particular study—could pressure research with their own agendas.

It’s difficult to decide whether these findings are noteworthy, or just another in a slew of related surveys on industry influence. Small sample size (due to low response rate) and potential biases when discussing such a sensitive topic make it difficult to come to conclusions about the true degree of influence industry exerts. And, as Campbell points out, influence comes from all sides—not only industry.

At the moment, at least, industry provides crucial funding—and maybe research with some influence is better than no research at all. On the other hand, common sense and history tell us that scientific agendas are worth being wary of.


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