Feds Probe Tainted Medical Research

Friday, December 28th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Universities and federal health officials must do more to prevent financial conflicts that could taint biomedical research and harm human subjects, a congressional review says.

The study by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said 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.

The GAO found the five universities it studied were hard-pressed to provide basic data about researchers' financial conflicts of interest in clinical studies involving humans.

Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., requested the investigation because of concerns that researchers or institutions were becoming too focused on financial rewards. Frist is a physician.

The report said the universities 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.

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 this year. 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 are under way to visit institutions to collect data and to analyze their conflict policies.

The universities studied were the University of California, Los Angeles; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; University of Washington in Seattle; Washington University in St. Louis; and Yale University.