WASHINGTON (AP) _ Federal health officials need to improve their oversight of university biomedical research to assure that potential conflicts of interest don't taint findings or harm human subjects, congressional investigators say.
Under current rules, researchers do not have to disclose their financial interests to independent review boards, even though the boards must evaluate projects for risks to human subjects, according General Accounting Office study.
The GAO said the universities it studied _ including Washington University in St. Louis _ kept information about research activities and financial interests in different offices and in different formats, ``making it a challenge to ensure that conflicts of interest were appropriately managed and not overlooked.''
Officials at some of the universities told the GAO that they were beginning to develop a central database for financial information. The GAO is the investigative arm of Congress.
Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., requested the study because of concerns that researchers or institutions were becoming too focused on financial rewards.
Collaborations between government-funded researchers and private industry have increased. A 1980 law let universities, nonprofit corporations and small businesses keep the patents and profits from their federally funded projects.
The budget of the National Institutes of Health, the main federal agency that funds biomedical research, grew from more than $3 billion in 1980 to more than $20 billion in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. Funding from drug companies grew even more rapidly, from $1.5 billion in 1980 to $22.4 billion in 2000.
The report said the five universities had developed policies for financial conflicts of interest, but they were all different.
The GAO recommended that federal health officials improve oversight and regulations governing financial interest, and to help institutions identify and manage such conflicts.
Health and Human Services officials agreed with the report's findings, and said efforts were under way to visit institutions to collect data and to analyze their conflict policies.
In addition to the St. Louis school, other universities studied were the University of California, Los Angeles; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; University of Washington in Seattle; and Yale University.