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Honest Medical Research

Drug company funding is corrupting medical research. The proportion of research and development financed by the biomedical industry has almost doubled in the last two decades. Several recent studies show that the industry’s increasing clout is turning once-independent-minded university scientists into mere marketing tools for new drugs.

One of the few bulwarks against junk science is the National Institutes of Health (NIH), whose budget Congress has doubled in the last five years, meaning it has the resources to fight back on behalf of independent research.

The problems it faces are manifest. Last fall, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study of 108 medical schools showing that more than 90% let pharmaceutical companies exert brazen control over research. The authors wrote: “We found that academic institutions rarely ensure that their investigators have full participation in the design of the trials, unimpeded access to trial data, and the right to publish their findings.”

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Last month, the Journal of the American Medical Assn. published a study concluding (hold on to your lab coat!) that researchers backed by biomedical companies are far more likely than independent scientists to produce pro-industry findings.

Groups representing academics and industry recently promised to toughen guidelines on how pharmaceutical companies interact with university researchers.

That’s barely a start. NIH Director Elias Zerhouni can do much more, using Congress’ recent largess to counter the influence of private funding on science. He should start by backing a reform idea gaining support among leaders in medical research: creating a national institute of clinical research to test new drugs against older ones and grant its seal of approval only to those that prove superior. New drugs currently are compared only with a sugar pill or other placebo in clinical trials essentially designed by the pharmaceutical companies.

The best science combines basic research aimed at unraveling fundamental mysteries and applied research whose goal is to solve practical problems. The classic academic ideal is Louis Pasteur, the brilliant French chemist who developed as many practical inventions as Thomas Edison, but in the context of answering basic questions about life. The image painted by the recent studies is not that of Pasteur moving freely between revelation and invention but of science in thrall to industry. The NIH, in establishing an independent balance, might embarrass universities and scientists into showing drug companies some spine.


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