Brad Teeter: Pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline plays significant role in university medical research
The pharmaceutical giant guilty of criminal charges resulting in the largest fraud settlement in U.S. history has manoeuvred itself into a pivotal role in the academic world, funding influential positions at universities throughout Canada and many parts of the world.
GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) LLC will pay $3 billion and plead guilty to promoting two popular drugs for unapproved uses and to failing to disclose important safety information, the U.S. Justice Department said last week. The fine will be the largest ever paid by a drug company.
GSK’s website notes the corporation’s $25-million “Pathfinders Fund for Leaders in Canadian Health Science Research” has helped create 22 university research chairs and professorships at Canadian universities, 12 of which are partnered with the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR).
The corporation and CIHR fund chairs in the faculties of medicine at UBC (HIV/AIDS), the University of Alberta (virology), University of Toronto (pharmaceuticals and drug delivery, respiratory), Toronto Hospital for Sick Children (genetics and genomics), University of Ottawa (diseases of aging), McMaster University (gastroenterology), McGill University (pharmacology), and Laval University (respiratory).
GSK’s heavy involvement in university research fits with the strategy articulated in a 2011 report authored by GSK corporate veterans Cathy J. Tralau-Stewart, Colin A. Wyatt, Dominque E. Kleyn, and Alex Ayad which suggests academia can be a credible front end in the drug-development process, leaving clinical development and sales (profits) to “efficient, focused companies”.
“We contend that pharma and academia need each other to bridge the transitional gap,” says the report. “In partnership with each other and the biotech industry they can form a new 'front end' to the early discovery phase of drug development, delivering new therapeutic entities to focused and efficient companies that can take these through pre-clinical and clinical development to the market.
"On the whole, most universities—and Imperial College London is a prime example—operate in the commercial arena to support their continued survival in the modern environment. These activities are also key to the translation of university-based research innovation to the market.”
In imposing the $3-billion fine, U.S. Attorney Carmin M. Ortiz noted, "GlaxoSmithKline sales force bribed physicians to prescribe GSK products using every imaginable form of high-priced entertainment."
GSK was among the top 10 FBI news stories for the week ending October 29, 2010. The FBI report notes GlaxoSmithKline pleaded guilty and paid $750 million to resolve criminal and civil liability regarding manufacturing in Puerto Rico Plant, a subsidiary of GlaxosmithKline.
Meanwhile, the drug industry can transform doctors into academic stars, says Dr. Carl Elliott, author of White Coat, Black Hat: Adventures on the Dark Side of Medicine.
"Drug companies may offer physicians authorship on journal articles, make them investigators on clinical trials, promote them in the media and fly them around the country to give lectures and conference presentations," Elliott wrote on the CNN website. "At meetings they get big fancy badges, like generals with their medals, a medical writer told me. Asking these doctors to disclose their corporate perks and payments is like asking a decorated officer to display his honors and awards."
Later in the same piece, Elliott concluded: "Doctors who take money or gifts from a pharmaceutical company are more likely to prescribe that company's drugs, write favorable journal articles about the drugs, give lectures recommending the drugs and suggest adding the drugs to a hospital formulary. That influence does not disappear when the payments are disclosed. To fix that problem, the payments must be eliminated."
But Paul Lucas, GSK President and Chief Executive Officer, believes the credibility of Canadian universities is threatened by a "trust deficit" in the relationship between Canada’s research-based pharmaceutical companies and its universities.
"This has serious and far-reaching implications for medical research in Canada, for the country’s ability to address a growing innovation gap with its peers in the developed world, and for our ability to address the issue of the long-term sustainability of Canada’s healthcare system," Lucas noted in a lecture at the University of Alberta earlier this year.
Lucas cochairs the Coalition for Action on Innovation in Canada and sits on the boards of the Toronto Region Research Alliance, Ontario Genomics Institute, and AllerGen. He's also a member of the Principal’s Advisory Council of the University of Toronto at Mississauga.
Brad Teeter is a Vancouver writer.