The University Record, February 18, 1998

Spotlight on Research: AAAS Presentations
Financial conflicts of interest threaten medical research

By Dave Wilkins
Health System Public Relations

Scientists exploring which medical treatments work and which don¹t often find their research--and even their character, credibility and professional conduct--harshly attacked by critics whose financial interests are threatened by their findings.

Manufacturers, physicians, patient advocacy groups and other special interests can intimidate scientists, tax their resources and undermine their resolve by initiating unfounded lawsuits, filing complaints with regulatory and funding agencies and making baseless accusations in the news media.

In such a climate, scientists may be discouraged from tackling research projects that are potentially controversial--despite their importance in identifying efficient, cost-effective medical care, says Gilbert S. Omenn, executive vice president for medical affairs. Omenn participated in a session addressing such conflicts at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Leading medical research institutions, such as Michigan and its peers, should use their clout and leadership to ensure that carefully crafted, properly interpreted research is pursued without restraint or fear of reprisals from special interests, Omenn said.

In a paper published in the April 17, 1997, issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, Omenn and his co-authors offered these recommendations:

 

Good science. Studies should be well-designed and their results defensible.

 

Full disclosure. Researchers and the journal reviewers, editors and industry critics who scrutinize their work should disclose all relevant financial interests and professional connections to the subject under debate. When they fail to do so, medical journalists should be diligent in investigating such connections. It also is important for journalists to note that the level of proof needed to file a lawsuit or a complaint about research is far less than professional journals require before publishing a scientist¹s paper.

 

Peer review. Research projects should be scrutinized through a peer-review process before their findings are made public. Special care should be taken when releasing data at a conference before it has been peer-reviewed and accepted for publication.

 

Better preparation. Universities and other research facilities should develop procedures to advise and protect researchers regarding potential accusations and to prevent special interests from determining research topics, funding priorities and whether specific research findings are to be published.