Newspaper article

How Academic Medical Researchers Have Joined the Assembly Line

Newspaper article

How Academic Medical Researchers Have Joined the Assembly Line

Article excerpt

University of Minnesota bioethics professor and journalist Dr. Carl Elliott ("White Coat, Black Hat: Adventures on the Dark Side of Medicine") has begun a weekly online column for The Chronicle of Higher Education, one of the most interesting magazines being published these days.

His first contribution, which appeared Wednesday, takes on a dark topic that many academic researchers in university medical centers are unwilling to discuss, at least publically: how, in their increasingly desperate need to compete with private companies for Big Pharma clinical-trial money, many of them have had to give up much of their academic independence and become, essentially, contract researchers.

"Contract researchers, unlike traditional academic researchers, do not typically design studies," explains Elliott. "They do not analyze the results of trials, or interpret them, or help write them up for publication. In fact, they make little if any intellectual contribution to the studies. They simply recruit subjects and oversee their medical status in the trial, which may well be conducted at dozens of different locations. Like drones responding to the queen bee, the contract researcher just follows instructions issued from central command."

Thirty years ago, drug companies relied almost exclusively on universities to test their new drugs in humans. The universities "gave drug companies prestige, technical expertise, and most importantly, a deep well of human subjects," notes Elliott.

On the company's terms

But those days are gone. "These days," writes Elliott, "if universities want to compete for clinical trials, they have [to] do it on terms set by market forces. Their faculty members have to be better recruiters than private trial sites. Their Institutional Review Boards have to give ethical approval to trials faster than for-profit IRBs. …

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