According to a recent article, a partnership between Johns Hopkins University and biotech company MedImmune regarding the training of bench scientists is raising questions of conflict of interest (see: A new model for training scientists could create a conflict of interest). MedImmune, headquartered in Gaithersburg, Maryland, became a wholly owned subsidiary of AstraZeneca in 2007 (see: MedImmune). Below is an excerpt from it:
"The mission and culture of these two institutions are vastly different, one is academic, with emphasis on scholarship and teaching; the other is business, with emphasis on production and marketing. Such differences could easily yield unanticipated conflicts," Jerome Kassirer, a former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine wrote in an email. "Moreover, given that the University has prided itself on its scholarly output, the narrow output of candidates for pharmaceutical positions might move it toward status as a trade school, thus injuring its exalted reputation." Industry has long partnered with academia in various ways, most notably by providing funding to support research. The new partnership takes that kind of collaboration to a new level: Johns Hopkins-MedImmune Scholars will have two research mentors -- one at the company, the Gaithersburg research arm of pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, and one at Johns Hopkins. Their thesis projects will be performed jointly between Johns Hopkins and MedImmune laboratories, and on top of the traditional academic curriculum, there will be courses co-taught by company scientists. The program is being jointly funded and designed by MedImmune and Johns Hopkins, but both institutions refused to disclose the details of the financial relationship....The joint training model has already been pursued in Europe. And the National Institutes of Health has long offered a training program in the U.S. in which students do a three-month internship with industry.....I imagine that this group is probably going to be dissuaded from doing anything that isn't relevant to MedImmune," Kassirer said in an interview. "I don't know that, but I assume that if the company is putting money into it, they want to get something out of it."
I admire Jerome Kassirer for taking a stand against this new relationship between Johns Hopkins and MedImmune/AstraZeneca. However, I need to add that this "horse left the barn" a long time ago. Nearly eight years ago, I opined in a blog note that medical school deans shared some of the blame regarding illegal payments from pharma companies to their faculty (see: Medical Schools Share Some Blame in Scandals Involving Pharma Payments to Faculty). Medical school deans are increasingly dependent on drug company grants for various types of research including, but not confined to, clinical trials. The relationship between some medical schools and Big Pharma long ago included direct collaboration on research projects including drug discovery (see: Big Pharma's Evolving Research Collaboration with Medical Schools). Here's a quote from Time Magazine published seven years ago pertaining to Harvard Medical School (see: Is Drug-Company Money Tainting Medical Education?):
Of Harvard's 8,900 professors and lecturers, 1,600 admit that either they or a family member have had some kind of business link to drug companies — sometimes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars — that could bias their teaching or research. Additionally, pharma contributed more than $11.5 million to the school last year for research and continuing-education classes.
In my opinion, this newly announced joint program between Johns Hopkins and MedImmune/AstraZeneca merely regularizes and solidifies a relationship that has probably existed for years. It may be that Johns Hopkins is in more dire financial straits than other medical schools and needs to formalize its relationship with AstraZeneca in a way that other schools may not relish, at least in the short term (see: Budget cuts prompt layoffs at Johns Hopkins University). A senior university executive described its financial problems in the following way: "Growth has slowed in the university's largest source of revenue—federal research funding—while other costs, such as compliance with federal regulations, have increased."