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An (unholy?) alliance between charities and pharma

In Health industry on May 21, 2009 by Alan Lovell Tagged: , , , , , , ,

If you’re like me you would have grown up naively believing that medical charities and patients groups are basically the good guys. They can be trusted to speak clearly and with authority because they represent the best interests of the patients and are not influenced by such grubby considerations as turning a profit, increasing market share, or anything of that ilk. You would have been rather worried when you found out that drug companies often sponsor charities (e.g. here), using such influence to help them get their products adopted, but you tried to retain faith in the notion of the good guys. Now, however, it appears to have come full circle and charities are sponsoring drug companies. The FT reports that:

A British cancer charity is to fund clinical trials of a drug owned by GlaxoSmithKline in a pioneering programme to develop promising experimental medicines that are neglected because of limited corporate funding. Cancer Research Technology, the commercial arm of Cancer Research UK, will shortly begin tests in patients of GSK’s 1070916A, and retain a share of the profits if the drug is successfully launched.

Yes, that’s right, “retain a share of the profits”. Just because they’re a patient group or a medical charity doesn’t mean they have any more moral authority than anyone else. There is no particular reason why they can’t comment on proposed guidance or breaking news stories etc., but as with any other individual or group they have to make clear what their conflicts of interests are.

*Sigh.* Was it easier in the old days? Were the good guys gooder then, and the bad guys badder? As in the words of Mr Adams, “In those days spirits were brave, the stakes were high, men were REAL men, women were REAL women, and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were REAL small furry creatures from Aplha Centauri.”

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7 Responses to “An (unholy?) alliance between charities and pharma”

  1. Dude, you lost me with that quotation at the end but good one with the post. Totally something to watch out for in the future-charities moving to the dark side.

  2. I’m not sure why you think retaining a share of the profits is a bad thing. The Wellcome Trust was built on money from pharma profits, and is as a result “the world’s largest medical research charity”, enabling it to fund thousands of scientific projects for the public good.

    CRUK’s aim is to cure cancer and if that’s easier with a commercial partnership, fair play.

    Disclaimer: ex-pharma-employee, now entirely public-funded.

    PS Hi Danielle 🙂

  3. Thanks for the comment Andrew. I think you make an important point. And I should point out that I don’t think pharma=bad.

    I suppose what worries me is that charities and patient groups are often invited as stakeholders to comment on and influence guideline and recommendation groups etc, and are meant to act as the ‘voice of the patient’, free from other political or economic considerations. Obviously if they are potentially going to make lots of money from a drug being recommended then that’s going to influence their behaviour.

    You’re right in that CRUK and other charities do a lot of good work, and we shouldn’t bemoan them the chance of getting more cash. Also, as long as there is good and clear declaration of interests then there is no reason why they shouldn’t be able to continue their work with organisation such as NICE. But that is the important bit: they are simply another stakeholder with their own interests in the outcome, and they are not (and I hope they don’t claim to be) some sort of clean and independent voice with moral authority above and beyond pharma, government, the NHS etc.

    p.s. indeed The Wellcome Trust was founded from a bequest by “Pharmaceutical entrepreneur Henry Wellcome” but that’s quite a different mechanism from the above.

  4. Interesting recent post on BlogDoctor related to pseudo charities in the medical sphere. Often these receive no donations at all and are government funded to push government policy.

  5. ‘indeed The Wellcome Trust was founded from a bequest by “Pharmaceutical entrepreneur Henry Wellcome” but that’s quite a different mechanism from the above.’

    It’s not that different. The bequest was largely *shares*, which meant that the Trust was actively making money off pharma sales from the 30s until the 90s (when they were sold to Glaxo to create GW).

    http://briandeer.com/hard-sell-4.htm

    Anyways, medical charities have never been disinterested and objective. They want donation and funding money to go to *their* cause — understandably — rather than any of the other worthy causes, and are quite happy to pay PR people and chuggers etc. to achieve this. I have never heard of a charity engaging in economic analyses to determine whether the money would be more cost-effectively spent with them rather than their ‘competitors’.

    I’m not charity-bashing, they’re great, but it’s worth not being naive about them 🙂

  6. Hey Andy- thanks for a rockin’ discussion. Just had a look at your blog-looks like you are busy with conferences and trips to great places like Vienna. How is the bioinformatics life treating you? I’ve gone to the “dark side” and am now working for a charity 😉 I’m going to the ISKO conference but that will probably be it for this year.

    D

    • Bioinformatics is good and in answer to your question on my site, not hit too hard by the recession yet — as most of the money is earmarked 3-5 years in advance by the EU, research councils etc.

      Which might mean we start to feel the bite just after everyone else has recovered 😉

      Charity = BHF right? (IP address lookup on blog comments 🙂 ) A biologist friend of mine is funded by them, she got a really sweet package…

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