Scientific research with an asterisk

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  • 04/29/2008

From today's edition of the Boston Globe:

Scientific research with an asterisk

By David A. Shaywitz and Dennis A. Ausiello

CONSIDER an academic scientist - we'll call him Louis - who receives funding from the beverage industry, the textile industry, and the livestock industry, and ultimately generates profound new scientific insights, beneficial both to the sponsoring companies and to the world as a whole. Are these accomplishments diminished because the work was industry funded? Should Louis - Pasteur - have an asterisk next to his name?

That's the implication of a recent New York Times profile of three academic researchers from New England who have pledged to decline industry funding and "have lost their asterisks."

The notion that academic researchers who partner with industry are intrinsically tainted reflects a misunderstanding of the importance and quality of industry research, and the role industry plays in bringing new drugs to the patients who need them.

While most of the original insights leading to new drugs and devices likely derive, at least in part, from the work of academic scientists, turning these preliminary advances into FDA-approved treatments required an exceptional investment by industry, and vital partnerships between academic investigators and company scientists.

The gaping distance between promising lab result and approved drug is apparent to anyone who has tried to reconcile the breathless news reports touting "scientific breakthrough" with the paucity of options available for patients suffering from any number of devastating medical conditions. In the last 10 years, for example, there have been more then 7,000 academic papers published on pancreatic cancer, but not a single breakthrough treatment.

The primary reason for this gap: The human body is complicated, and our understanding limited. In many cases, we are still struggling to figure out the molecular basis for important diseases. In other conditions, even when the cause is clear, designing a drug capable of selectively correcting the defect while not causing new problems, is a monumental challenge.

To overcome these hurdles, there is a need for more, not less, interaction between academic physician scientists and their counterparts in industry, engagement that should occur at every stage of the drug development process.

Our own experiences with difficult science and sick patients has convinced us that the battle is not drug companies vs. academics, but rather between dreadful diseases and the medical researchers who are trying to subdue them.

Unfortunately, industry critics often lose sight of the big picture, and routinely stigmatize pharmaceutical researchers and their academic collaborators. Young academic investigators are often counseled against "selling out" and pursuing a career in pharmaceutical research, despite the exciting drug-development opportunities such a choice might afford. Senior university researchers who might contribute considerable wisdom to drug discovery efforts are reviled in the press if they associate with industry in any way, even though these relationships are vital for the creation of new medicines.

Finally, of course, there is the money. Because pharmaceutical companies are for-profit entities, conventional wisdom holds that any data they publish should be suspect. In fact, pharmaceutical research is tightly regulated, and industry-sponsored clinical studies are typically performed in a rigorous, consistent, and transparent fashion that would be the envy of many academics. To the extent some industry studies fall short, the problem generally lies not in the results obtained, but rather in the questions never asked - a critique that applies at least as well to the pharma-bashing studies now so popular in certain medical journals.

Also puzzling is the suggestion that it is improper for drug companies to solicit the perspective of academic experts, and immoral (or at least asterisk-worthy) for experts to accept financial compensation for their time. Expert insight may accelerate the delivery of new treatments to patients, and it seems disrespectful to suggest this time should not be valued.

Still, although the relationship between universities and industry should be broadened, useful and transparent guidelines must be developed to get this relationship right. Ultimately, these interactions must be defined, protected and enhanced if the medical community is to deliver on its commitment to secure the health and well-being of patients.

Dr. David A. Shaywitz is a management consultant in New Jersey. Dr. Dennis A. Ausiello is the physician-in-chief of Massachusetts General Hospital and a director at Pfizer.


Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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