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Tainted medicine causes concern

The Academy says it's an uneasy alliance between clinical investigators and the pharmaceutical industry.

A top scientific advisory body has called for more transparency in the relationship between the pharmaceutical industry and doctors and researchers.

The Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences says it wants to prevent conflicts of interest in biomedical research.

In its guidelines the Academy says industry should not be allowed to pay for lavish social events. It also urges organisers of medical congresses to reveal their sponsors.

The move comes amid growing international concern that the tightening grip of the pharmaceutical industry is threatening the objectivity of research.

Use and abuse

“I think overall research is doing very well but there always abuses as with any activity,” said Professor Thomas Lüscher, professor and chair of cardiology at the University Hospital in Zurich .

“The worst scenario is that you are paid to say things which are not true. There’s also the danger that if somebody works too closely with only one sponsor he may be a bit over-optimistic in the interpretation of his results or recommend things which may not be strictly recommendable.”

The Academy accepts that there is a role for socialising between industry and members of the medical profession – perhaps a dinner to discuss a mutual project – but it objects to extravagant trips where doctors listen to one speech and spend the rest of the weekend in a luxury hotel.

It suggests that doctors should be obliged to contribute financially when participating in a congress to demonstrate a willingness to be more objective.

The Academy recommends a figure of SFr500 for events in Europe and SFr1000 for events elsewhere.

It also says that no more than 30 per cent of the funding for any programme should go towards social events.

“If you don’t mind your arrangements becoming public and if you can accept your behaviour on these grounds, then it is highly likely to be okay,” said Professor Werner Stauffacher, the Academy’s president, offering a rule of thumb for doctors and scientists.

Moral authority

Stauffacher dismissed suggestions that the recommendations will carry no weight because they cannot be backed up by sanctions.

“The Academy is a moral institution which is recognised and respected in Switzerland and I think if the Academy puts up these recommendations, it is highly likely that the professional organisations and those that can take sanctions will then react,” he told swissinfo.

The Academy says the key questions are where the money goes and what it is used for.

It said the emphasis should be on the quality of research, the methods used, how the results are interpreted and whether there is clarity and transparency.

When the Academy polled doctors to find out what they thought of the guidelines, one third said they were too restrictive while another third said they didn’t go far enough. The Academy says these results suggest it is on the right track.

Financial support

Despite their recommendations, the authors of the guidelines were keen to point out that research depends on financial support from the pharmaceutical industry

“Science and medicine would never have developed as it has in the past 50 years without this fruitful collaboration,” Lüscher told swissinfo.

“We can only ensure that this collaboration will be as fruitful in the future if we have rules that make it socially acceptable, ethically acceptable and assure that the quality of science is the best we can have.”

Meanwhile, the pharmaceutical industry expressed its support for the initiative.

“In principle, we have a positive view,” Dieter Grauer, deputy director of the Swiss Society of Chemical Industries, told swissinfo.

“In our industry, we have had similar rules for 30 years which have given a certain transparency to what is good in clinical research and in the promotion of pharmaceutical products.”

Some countries like Canada and the United States already have strict guidelines in place.

The Academy says these recommendations will not harm but rather enhance the high reputation of Swiss biomedical research.

swissinfo, Vincent Landon

Growing concern about conflicts of interests in research

Medical Sciences Academy wants more transparency in links between doctors and pharma

Academy issues non-binding ethical guidelines

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR