Two new studies, a commentary and an editorial in today's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association entreat research institutions in the U.S. to establish and enforce uniform guidelines for relationships between scientists and industry sponsors to avoid conflicts of interest. "When an investigator has a financial interest in or funding by a company with activities related to his or her research, the research is lower in quality, more likely to favor the sponsor's product, less likely to be published and more likely to have delayed publication," writes JAMA Editor Catherine D. DeAngelis, citing previous findings. "Institutional safeguards can substantially mitigate the negative effects of funding from companies with a vested interest in the results."
The first new study, from Mildred Cho of Stanford University and her colleagues, looked at just what kinds of safeguards are already in place and found them lacking. The authors reviewed the existing 89 policies on conflict of interest from 100 biomedical research institutions in the U.S.--those receiving the most funding from the National Institutes of Health in 1998. Only 55 percent required financial disclosures from all faculty; 45 percent required them only from the principal investigators or those conducting the research. A mere 19 percent included specific limits on faculty activities, and only 4 percent prohibited student involvement in work sponsored by a company in which the faculty mentor had a financial interest. "Wide variation in management of conflicts of interest among institutions may cause unnecessary confusion among potential industrial partners or competition among universities for corporate sponsorship that could erode academic standards and lessen public confidence in university research," the authors conclude.
The second study took a closer look at the nature of faculty-sponsor relationships, analyzing disclosure forms and other documents from December 1980 to October 1999, maintained by the administrator of conflict of interest policies at the University of California, San Francisco. Among other facts shown in the chart above, Elizabeth A. Boyd and Lisa A. Bero discovered that nearly 8 percent of academic scientists at U.C.S.F. had some kind of financial ties to sponsors of their research in 1999--almost twice as many who reported the same interests 12 years earlier. "Our study shows a set of intricate financial relationships between faculty researchers and private sponsors, extending beyond the funding of particular research projects," the authors write. Although most relationships were not deemed problematic, they found that U.C.S.F.'s advisory panel had recommended that faculty sell stocks, resign from management positions or take similar actions in 26 percent of the cases.
In his commentary, David Korn of the Association of American Medical Colleges put it this way: "Recent reports claiming inadequacies in university systems of protection of human research participants and alleging linkage of individual and institutional financial conflicts of interest to the deaths of research participants sound a clarion call to the academic medical community to come together to address these critical issues."