Cancer patients unfazed by study ties to drug companies

November 30, 2006|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- Most cancer patients participating in studies of new treatments don't care whether their doctors or hospitals have financial ties to companies whose drugs are being tested, according to a government-sponsored study published today.

About 80 percent of patients surveyed by researchers for the National Institutes of Health said they were "not worried at all" by the ties and said they would still take part in the drug trials if their doctor or hospital owned stock or received royalties from the corporate sponsor.

"This is completely counter-intuitive, but when you step back, it makes a lot of sense," said Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel, chairman of the NIH's clinical bioethics department and the study's senior author. Patients "are focused on getting the best care for their cancer."

The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, surveyed 253 cancer patients receiving treatment at the NIH and four other medical centers around the country. The patients were interviewed between November 2004 and November 2005.

The survey results come amid a debate about the integrity of drug research that has gripped industry, academia and the NIH. After Democrats take over Congress early next year, they are expected to launch a new drug-safety push that could include requiring most scientists who advise federal drug regulators on approving new drugs to be free of significant financial ties to industry.

Another article in the medical journal added to the debate by reporting that 15 percent of institutional review board members - who reviewed studies to protect the safety and well-being of patients - had connections to companies sponsoring the studies or to their competitors, according to a survey by Massachusetts General Hospital and University of Massachusetts researchers.

A common response to conflicts is requiring their disclosure, but the survey of cancer patients found that less than 15 percent would have avoided participating in a study of a new drug because of financial ties.

Citing that finding, Emanuel said policymakers should shift their focus from public disclosure to institutional oversight. That would allow universities and research institutes to police their own researchers' corporate links for possible conflicts of interest.

Arthur A. Levin, director of the Center for Medical Consumers in New York, said patients aren't the only ones who would benefit from public disclosure. Doctors and scientists reading drug studies would, too.

"Sunshine is always a good thing even if the ultimate user doesn't use it," Levin said. "It may be patients don't pay attention, but the world may. A physician reading the study may be influenced by that disclosure, in a good way."

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