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CAUT Bulletin Archives

February 2003

Conflicts of Interest in Biomedical Research

Conflicts of interest are so widespread in biomedical research that nearly one in four scientists have financial ties to industry, according to the findings of a new study released last month.

The study, conducted by researchers at Yale University School of Medicine and reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, also discovered that more than two-thirds of academic institutions in the United States and Canada hold shares and other equity in firms that sponsor biomedical research.

“Financial relationships are pervasive and problematic,” the study says, warning that the research bankrolled by industry is more likely to draw conclusions favourable to commercial interests.

Justin Bekelman, one of the study’s authors, said that he and his colleagues found that not only did industrial sponsorship influence the outcome of biomedical research, but that it also affected the way clinical trials are designed. For instance, industry-sponsored studies are far more likely to compare new drugs to placebos rather than to existing medicines, a method that increases the chances of a trial producing positive results.

The study’s authors recommend that conflicts of interest between researchers, academic institutions and industry could be better managed through the creation of a public database that would include the results of all clinical trials and disclose researchers’ financial ties to industry.

But Sheldon Krimsky, an expert on conflicts of interest at Tufts University, cautioned that disclosure may not be enough.

“We would not permit a judge, for example, to have equity in a for-profit prison, even if the judge disclosed it,” Krimsky told the Chronicle of Higher Education. “And yet it seems to be that it’s OK for scientists to have equity in companies that fund their research as long as they disclose it.”