Put a Black Box Around Madame Curie and Dr. Einstein

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  • 07/07/2006

What do Madame Curie, Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk, George Hitchings, Joshua Ledeberg, Gertrude Elion and Sir James Black all have in common? They are Nobel Prize winners who have transformed the 20th century for the better through the contributions to science and medicine. And, according to the Wall Street Journal’s Thomas Burton, their research has, uh, “limitations” because they all did consulting or received honoraria from pharmaceutical firms. I guess by extension Louis Pastuer’s findings on pathogenesis are limited or have in Burton’s tart terms, “shading and nuances” because he received funding for the work from French beer and wine producers.

Burton wasn’t talking about Nobel prize winners in his article, of July 6, 2006 in the The Wall Street Journal Europe , “Antismoking drug from Pfizer shows promise in research “

He was writing about Chantix, a new Pfizer drug that helps suppress smoking by smoothing out the production of dopamine (not blocking as Burton states) involved in creating the craving for nicotine. There is less binging or withdrawal as a result. I know a little bit about the drug since I had the chance to talk to the Pfizer pharmacologists who designed the drug to produce the biochemical effect. In any event, the drug uses a different pathway and novel approach so the robust results are not surprising one respect.

What is suprising is that Burton decides to regard the fact that the researchers source of money is somehow a limitation on the drug’s effectiveness equal to that of the study’s exclusion critieria….

“Despite the positive findings, there were several limitations to the research. One is the fact that people with pre-existing conditions such as depression, alcohol or drug abuse, and diabetes requiring insulin were excluded from some of the studies. Another stems from the fact that the majority of authors of the three studies, which were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, either have done consulting work or received honoraria or research grants from Pfizer and other drug companies, or are Pfizer employees or shareholders.

Such apparent conflicts of interest won’t normally change the major findings of research. But they can affect nuances and shadings of the way they are presented. “All of these papers were rigorously peer-reviewed,” says the University of Wisconsin’s Douglas E. Jorenby, who headed one of the studies. (He has received research funding from Pfizer but not consulting fees or honoraria.) A Pfizer spokeswoman says, “Regarding consultation fees, Pfizer follows standard protocols for consulting agreements and provides adequate disclosure.”

As one of my friends who works for a drug company noted, “Based on the logic presented here every commercially conducted/funded research project has a built-in âlimitationâ. Seems easier just to add some standard warning label - like on cigarettes - to every commercially supported study and be done with it.”

But it’s worse. This approach slimes the good work of every good and great researcher who in any way associates with private companies. It disqualifies and discredits pivotal work and deprives the public of pathbreaking research that cannot be duplicated anywhere else. Let’s be clear: not only is the commercialization of science not bad. Commercialization of science, it’s industrialization is critical to advancing the public health. Those purists who want science to be conflict or profit free want the medicine THEY can control, plain and simple.

That’s a sure-fire recipe for medical Lysenkoism.


Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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