How a British university sold out to a drug company

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A few years ago, Sheffield University in the U.K. offered over $250,000 to one of its senior medical professors if he would agree to stop criticizing the drug company that was giving research money to the university’s medical school.

For several years, bone metabolism specialist Dr. Aubrey Blumsohn had been complaining to his university about scientific misconduct around a contract between Sheffield and the U.S.-based drug company, Procter & Gamble Pharmaceuticals. Blumsohn claimed that the company had denied him access to his own key research data on the P&G drug Actonel, and then tried to ghostwrite his analysis of it for publication.  

It all started in 2004, when P&G’s main pharmaceutical rival, Merck, was due to publish a head-to-head study comparing its osteoporosis drug, Fosamax, with P&G’s Actonel. At that time, many doctors considered Fosamax more effective at increasing bone density and decreasing the rate at which bones degenerate. Global sales for Fosamax were $3 billion a year, compared to a puny $1 billion for Actonel.

For Procter & Gamble Pharmaceuticals, it was a no-brainer. They simply could not afford any negative results from Dr. Blumsohn’s research on Actonel to be released. In fact, they refused to let Dr. Blumsohn analyse his own data.  Instead, P&G’s own statisticians took over.

Dr. Blumsohn claimed that, when he objected, he felt like he was doing battle not only with P&G but with his own university. Shortly after he complained to Sheffield authorities about the apparent manipulation of his Actonel data, he recorded a conversation in which Sheffield’s Research Dean Dr. Richard Eastell warned him:

“The only thing we have to watch all the time is our relationship with P&G” and that the P&G money “is a good source of income; we have got to really watch it.”

Universities with medical schools have long accepted funding from pharmaceutical companies to conduct clinical drug trials. But in the past, professors ran those trials independently of the sponsor.  Dr. Blumsohn argues that this arm’s-length relationship appears to be breaking down.

Universities have now become increasingly dependent on drug companies for an ever-larger share of their research budgets (some sources estimate that up to 80% of clinical research is now privately funded). On top of this, drug companies (as in the Procter & Gamble Pharmaceuticals  Actonel case) have pressed for greater control over the research process, making it easier for them to obscure or delete negative results from published academic papers.

Consider the Vioxx scandal. The Merck pain medication Vioxx was taken off the market in 2004 after being linked to an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes among those who took the drug longer than 18 months. The Journal of the American Medical Association reported that key data from Merck-funded Vioxx clinical trials showing a threefold increase in deaths among Vioxx users were withheld from government regulators for more than two years

JAMA editors claimed that Merck had hired ghostwriters to author the flawed research reports for publication, and that the problems are pervasive within the drug industry, not just confined to Merck.  See also: Merck Pays Off 3,100 Families for Vioxx Heart Attack Deaths.

At the time, the Wall Street Journal also reported that, aside from deliberately withheld Vioxx data, other published academic studies related to the anti-depressant drugs Celebrex, Paxil, and Zoloft appear to have been skewed when their real authors permitted the suppression of negative results.

When Dr. Blumsohn finally did gain access to the P&G-tabulated research stats, he found that a substantial amount of his own original data was missing. When he threatened to go public with this evidence, his Sheffield bosses suggested an early and involuntary retirement instead – with substantial hush money thrown in if he’d agree to shut up about his P&G concerns.  He declined their offer, and continues to write and speak publicly about what he calls scientific misconduct.

Read The Guardian‘s report on Dr. Blumsohn’s experience at Sheffield.

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6 thoughts on “How a British university sold out to a drug company

  1. LOVE the new website – especially the catchy title “The ETHICAL NAG”.
    It’s exceptional and such an eye opener!! These topics are SO very
    important to draw to people’s attention, so well done.

  2. This is unbelievable, the extent of corporate interference in what should be pure science. Do these academic institututions not realize the damage that cases like this have on their very reputations? Without which, their work is worth zero. A pity really.

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