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Full Disclosure, Part 2: Academics Entering Pharma Partnerships Should Have a Dating Rulebook

Full Disclosure, Part 2: Academics Entering Pharma Partnerships Should Have a Dating Rulebook

Picture of William Heisel

The Rules, William Heisel, pharma, Antidote, Reporting on Health

Remember the book The Rules? In it, Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider offered cheeky advice for women hoping to find that One Guy. Academics are in a similar dilemma when looking for private funding for their research.

They want to appear eager, but not too eager. They want to be open to new experiences while not betraying their core beliefs. And they ultimately want to find a partnership that will last longer than a few months and that won't end in tears.

That's why they need their own Rules for these industry-academia relationships, particularly when it comes to the problem of pharma-sponsored ghostwriting.

Antidote offers two such rules based on the recent experience of Barbara Sherwin, a McGill University psychology professor publicly reprimanded for allowing her name to be used on an article written by a ghostwriter paid by Wyeth.

Know that there's no such thing as "just friends." Sherwin told Maclean's magazine that she was the victim of a stealth operation by Wyeth to trick her into signing her name to work that promoted hormone therapy, a market dominated by Wyeth. As hard as it is to believe that someone as educated and accomplished as Sherwin could be easily fooled – or that Wyeth would even want to fool her – let's take her at her word.

"Sherwin's relationship with the pharmaceutical company started innocently enough. In the early 1990s, she was invited to give a presentation about her work on androgens and psychological functioning in women," wrote Julie Belluz for Maclean's. "There, she met a woman named Karen Mittleman during the lunch break. Mittleman introduced herself as a PhD and a former academic who worked in medical communications. The pair hit it off, and kept in touch. ‘I liked her, and considered her a casual friend,' Sherwin told Maclean's over the phone from her office at McGill."

Mittleman, fans of Antidote will recall, worked for DesignWrite, which had been hired by Wyeth to insert marketing messages into the scientific literature. Somehow, this friendship resulted in Sherwin signing an article as the sole author with no credit given to DesignWrite or Wyeth, claiming that estrogen was a great way to treat memory loss and also could be used to prevent colorectal cancer, cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis. The article even went so far as to say hormone therapy could lower the risk of "all-cause mortality in postmenopausal women." The article said, "Furthermore, since estrogen has been used for nearly 60 years, its effective dosages, side effects, and influences on other organ systems are well known. In light of the salutary effects of estrogen on cognition, this makes it a relatively safe treatment at this point in time, although the relevant studies on an MCI [mild cognitive impairment] population have yet to be done."

This was at a time when hormone therapy was starting to come under fire for increasing cancer risk and other safety concerns, and it was part of a much larger effort by Wyeth to counteract those concerns.

Maintain your sense of self. At any point during their friendship, had Sherwin asked what exactly "medical communications" meant, she would have learned about the drug company connection. Academics should stop being doe-eyed about the way the world works. They have objectives, and pharmaceutical companies have objectives.

Sometimes those objectives will align in the pursuit of good science, and sometimes a pharmaceutical company is only going to be interested in working with a researcher to achieve a particular market-oriented goal. This could include a review article, such as the one mentioned above, that raises awareness about an emerging category of illness or treatment. It could be an article that proposes new uses for drugs already on the market. It could be a clinical trial that leans toward the industry sponsor's product.

Sherwin provided scientific legitimacy to ideas that would have sounded self-serving coming from Wyeth itself. Academics need to ask themselves at the start of an engagement with industry, "Why is this company interested in me?"

Tomorrow: Paying for your own dinner, pointing fewer fingers and avoiding repeat mistakes

Related Posts:

Full Disclosure: How Do We Fix the Problem of Pharma-Sponsored Ghostwriting?

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