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The Drug Companies and the Universities

To the Editors:

Marcia Angell’s lucid and insightful article [“The Truth About the Drug Companies,” NYR, July 15] addresses real problems in the pharmaceutical industry. Although she recognizes that academic biomedical research has increasingly become a partner to this industry, she unfortunately limits herself to a token hand-slapping over this relationship, bemoaning “a growing pro-industry bias in medical research—exactly where such bias doesn’t belong.” Yet she then moves on to suggest reforms only for the industrial partner. Why? Professors are routinely involved with outside companies, sometimes of their own making, and virtually none of their research would have gotten off the ground or continued to fly without federal support of their laboratories, their postdoctoral fellows, and their graduate students—in short, their whole enterprise. The points she makes about drug companies reaping profits from taxpayer-funded research should also be directed at university faculty. The strategic goals of industry and academia can be overwhelmingly incompatible, though defenders might say that even the tiniest common goal makes corporate ties justifiable. The souring of the partnership between the University of California at Berkeley and Syngenta is an illustrative example of where this dance faltered (see Nature, August 5, 2004). It is almost inconceivable that the professoriate can devote mental energies to scientific problems without some fraction of that energy being directed by commercial rewards. Surely, some creative reform needs to intervene before the “threadbare but genteel” become extramural vice-presidents of research in suits.

Lawrence Sincich

Beckman Vision Center

University of California, San Francisco

Marcia Angell replies:

I very much agree with the thrust of Lawrence Sincich’s letter. My NYR article was a selection from my book, The Truth About the Drug Companies: How They Deceive Us and What to Do About It (Random House, 2004), in which I discuss at length the issues he raises. There is no question in my mind that medical researchers, educators, and clinicians have been corrupted by their close and lucrative ties to industry, and I regret that this important topic was given short shrift in the necessarily abbreviated article.

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