The Conflict of Interest talk these days is all about doctors and medical school lecturers who are in bed with Big Pharma, but the bed is pretty crowded. Researchers are there, too. Not that this hasn’t been a topic of conversation. And not that researchers aren’t conscious of it and frantically trying to distance themselves from it. But it’s nice and warm under the covers and its a friendship with benefits, as the younger generation likes to put it:
As accusations of undisclosed financial conflicts among university researchers swirl, drug makers and academics are entering a new stage of closer collaboration. Instead of striking traditional licensing deals with academic labs that produce commercializable results, companies are starting to reach farther back, all the way to the inception of basic research projects.
The motivation from both sides is obvious: Pharma has a pipeline problem, and universities are clamoring for research dollars as public funding feels the pinch of the deflating economy. But closer relationships and earlier-stage collaborations between academia and pharma companies do not come without potential conflict of interest issues of their own. (Bob Grant, The Scientist)
The issue from Pharma’s side is clear: they have a “pipeline” problem, which is to say they have few new (obscenely profitable) drugs in the pipeline. That’s because they really don’t do much original research on their own, regardless of the line they feed the public and their bought-and-paid-for politicians that basic “research” looking for cures for cancer is very expensive. They don’t do that kind of research. They let academia do it, bought and paid for (there’s that phrase again) by the US taxpayer via NIH. But they still want exclusive access to it and they also want to control its direction. They aren’t interested in the free and unfettered search for truth which often pays the unexpected but handsome dividend of being tremendously useful. They want the controlled and fettered search for new drugs. So they buy in to the research enterprise:
About a year ago, Merck Research Laboratories created a formal department to actively seek out early stage research collaborations with external partners. Catherine Strader, vice president of that department, called external basic research, said that Merck plans to draw at least 25% of its early pipeline over the next five years from deals with academic labs, as well as small pharmaceutical and biotech companies.
Merck isn’t the only one. Well-developed products or technologies that could be licensed by pharma companies are rare these days, said Pfizer spokesperson Ed Bryant, adding that increased competition and licensing costs have driven pharmaceutical companies to consider a different strategy. “We had to shift to develop collaborations with talented academic groups to generate intellectual property earlier on.”
Yes, intellectual property. Patents and licenses giving exclusive rights. They are buying it and getting it cheaply because they are parasitizing the basic research enterprise paid for by taxpayers. In all the talk about the freedom to publish and conflicts of interest by university committees, this doesn’t seem to come up. It seems to be taken for granted that if a drug company supports research to the tune of a few tens of millions (chicken feed in marketing budget terms) this gives them an exclusive right to market the product. The taxpayer? No such right. Just the right to get fleeced.
It’s a sweet deal for Big Pharma. They go through the motions of making agreements about “academic independence” and other matters of genuine concern to scientists and get in return scientific talent working on problems of interest to them (and often diverted from things that might be problematic). And they get early access, sometimes delayed publication to complete the patent process, and intellectual property rights for which they provided very little, if any, intellectual input. And they get it for a pittance.
Meanwhile the researchers are happy and content. So are high class hookers and gigolos.