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Ethical guidelines on science, industry issued
Seattle Times business reporter
The nation's largest coalition of research scientists has released new ethics guidelines for working with for-profit companies, including a recommendation that scientists not leak inside information about drug studies to investment firms.
The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, which represents 84,000 researchers, released its report last week after more than a year of effort. The report touches on familiar themes in potential conflicts of interest between academia and industry.
It says collaboration of the two worlds is necessary to advance science, but academics must make sure that industrial relationships do not bias the science. It generally favors policing through self-regulation.
The specific warning to scientists about consulting with investment firms comes nearly a year after an investigative report in The Seattle Times drew national attention to the issue.
The Times found 26 cases in which doctors leaked confidential information about drug trials to investment firms looking for an edge in the market. Some doctors were paid $1,000 an hour or more as consultants by the firms.
The federation's report said that scientists "should not engage in premature communication" of nonpublic information with investment firms. It also advocates for greater disclosure, stating, "When investigators have consulting relationships with investment firms related to their area of expertise, all parties shall be aware of the specific circumstances involved."
Dr. Leo Furcht, president of the federation, and head of lab medicine and pathology at the University of Minnesota Medical School, said the committee determined that scientists are often na´ve and need to be more aware they risk breaking federal insider-trading laws when talking with investors.
"The simple answer is 'Don't discuss nonpublic information,' " Furcht said.
Some researchers didn't wait for any new guidelines.
Dr. Peter Eisenberg, a cancer physician in Marin County, Calif., and a member of the board of directors of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), said he decided to stop his $600 an hour consulting with Wall Street firms "dead cold" after he read the Times report.
Some colleagues, Eisenberg said, have decided to continue consulting, so long as it sticks to basics and doesn't delve into any observations from unpublished studies.
"For me, I realized it's too hard to keep straight what's public and what's not public information," Eisenberg said. "I wanted to be squeaky clean."
Eisenberg thinks many more doctors would stop consulting with investors if medical societies issue clear guidelines against it. "This has definitely changed some doctors' behavior," he said. "But real monumental changes are still to come."
After The Seattle Times stories ran last August, U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, called for the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate, but it has not resulted in any SEC enforcement actions.
In a statement this week, Grassley said the new ethics guidelines are "a step in the right direction." He added, "Promoting transparency by insisting that all parties be aware of the consulting relationships will go a long way to leveling the playing field for all investors."
In addition to the scientific federation, two leading medical journals, The New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet, have editorialized against the practice described in the Times stories. Medical societies have also warned their members.
The Association of American Medical Colleges urged doctors at all 125 U.S. medical schools to "scrupulously honor" confidentiality agreements for drug studies.
ASCO, an organization of cancer doctors, circulated the Times story to all of its members in September. It is currently discussing an update to its ethics policy, to cover consulting with investors.
Luke Timmerman: 206-515-5644 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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