Schools have safeguards against conflicts of interest

By: Mark Horvit, Staff Writer
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Sunday, January 16, 2005

Top academic experts can earn tens of thousands of dollars a year from drug companies.

Some serve as consultants and on speakers bureaus. They give presentations to other physicians at seminars and continuing-education sessions, talking about a company's medication.

Medical school administrators say they have safeguards to protect the research process from conflicts of interest.

Schools typically require researchers to file annual reports listing industry-related income of $10,000 or more. At the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, for example, 21 faculty members in the psychiatry department disclosed $442,500 in speaking, consulting and advising fees from industry in the most recent reports. The lion's share went to a few researchers.

Typically, under university rules, such financial connections don't preclude participation in research studies. As long as such income is disclosed, any potential conflicts can usually be managed with proper oversight, said Dennis Shingleton, chief of staff and director of clinical trials at the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine at the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth.

Eric Nestler, chairman of the psychiatry department at UT Southwestern, said such ties create a potential for conflict, but that "doesn't mean there is bad behavior."

It makes sense, he said, for drug companies to turn to the best minds at top universities because the companies risk millions every time they attempt to bring a new drug to market.

Nestler said he didn't conduct research for the drug and biotech companies that paid him more than $100,000 in consulting fees last year.

The percentage of researchers with financial ties to disclose is typically small. At the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, about 5 percent have income that triggers the disclosure rule, and only about 2 percent have a conflict that requires committee oversight, said research compliance officer Angela Wishon.

Though the number is small, many of those with industry ties are considered tops in their field. Some have reported financial connections to a dozen different companies.

"The percentage of academic experts who are unencumbered with corporate ties is shrinking," said Mike Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "So it's harder to find somebody who can give an opinion without worrying, 'Will my grant be renewed?' or 'I'm a consultant to XYZ Drug Company.' "