July 26, 2002

Public trust of medical centers is key: Wood

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Dr. Alastair J.J. Wood

Public trust of medical centers is key: Wood

The public’s trust in academic medical centers is being eroded by a growing perception that financial conflicts of interest are unduly influencing the conduct of medical research, Dr. Alastair J.J. Wood warned scientists last week during a meeting at Vanderbilt University.

“We’re utterly dependent on that trust,” said Wood, professor of Medicine and Pharmacology and assistant vice chancellor for Research at Vanderbilt. “We’re dependent upon it for funding, we’re dependent upon it for our patient care, we’re dependent upon it for everything we do. …When we do something that detracts from that (trust), all of us suffer, and all of us are put at risk.”

Conflicts of interest — including relationships with companies that are investing in potential new drugs or treatments — aren’t inherently bad, he said. After all, “if you want drugs to reach the market … you need drug companies to do that.”

Medical centers, however, should reveal these relationships “before they’re on the front page of The New York Times,” Wood said. “We also need to ensure that human subjects protection is never tainted by a conflict of interest.”

Toward that end, Vanderbilt asks outside Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) to evaluate the protocols for any human subjects research where “there is a perception that (the medical center) could have a conflict of interest,” he said. Vanderbilt also has an active conflict of interest committee that, according to the medical center, reviews “individual faculty circumstances where a possible conflict of interest or commitment might exist.”

Wood spoke July 18 during the third annual Master of Science in Clinical Investigation/Vanderbilt Physician Scientist Development Program dinner at the University Club.

Established in 1999, the Master of Science in Clinical Investigation program trains board-eligible physicians currently enrolled in a fellowship program at Vanderbilt or Meharry Medical College; Vanderbilt faculty members with consent of their department chair; post-doctoral Ph.D.s, and Ph.D. candidates in the nursing school, who are anticipating a career in patient-oriented research.

The two-year-long program provides training in study design, biostatistics, biomedical ethics, clinical pharmacology, human genetics and assay methods.

Six to 10 candidates are accepted each year into the program, which is directed by Dr. Nancy J. Brown, associate professor of Medicine and Pharmacology, and Dr. Thomas A. Hazinski, professor of Pediatrics. For more information, visit the Web site: http://www.mc.vanderbilt.edu/msci/index.php.

The Physician Scientist Development Program was established in 1998 in response to a serious decline in the number of physicians who participate directly in biomedical research. “It is essential to provide a ‘bridge’ to support physician scientists between the early training periods and the more established period where physicians compete successfully for federal grants,” said Dr. Jeffrey R. Balser, James Taloe Gwathmy Clinician-Scientist Professor and chair of Anesthesiology, who founded and directs the program.

The program provides two years of salary support ($75,000 a year) to allow new physician scientists on the Vanderbilt faculty to spend 75 percent of their time conducting research under the direct supervision of an established Vanderbilt investigator. The program currently has 13 participants. “We project that 90 percent of our scholars will secure independent federal grant funding within five years,” said Balser, who also is associate dean for physician scientist career development.

More information is on the Web site: http://bret.mc.vand-erbilt.edu/vpsd/index.htm.