Science for Sale

In a world of retail research, who can trust the results?

| November/December 1999

On a frigid January morning, a group of young scientists gathered in a small meeting room at Massachusetts General Hospital to share their latest findings. Every year, the Massachusetts Alzheimer's Disease Research Center, a network of Harvard Medical School faculty members, holds this 'poster session,' a time-honored form of scientific show-and-tell. At the 1999 meeting, scientist Dennis Selkoe moved through the room like a celebrity, looking very Brooks Brothers in a sea of rumpled L.L. Bean. In this small community of national researchers, Selkoe is a star, the man responsible for shedding light on the biochemical breakdowns that destroy the brains of Alzheimer's patients.

Selkoe is also one of a new breed of university-based entrepreneurs who have found ways to move their work out of the lab and onto Wall Street. As a founder of California-based Athena Neurosciences, he's earned millions by linking his scientific fortunes with the pharmaceutical industry.

This spring, a Harvard review panel investigated whether Selkoe let his corporate interests interfere with his scientific judgment. Last year, he added his name to a National Institutes of Health (NIH) report endorsing a controversial blood test for Alzheimer's. What he neglected to mention in the report is that Athena manufactures the test and stands to profit from NIH endorsement.

An anonymous complaint filed last December with the Harvard Medical School dean's office charged Selkoe and another Harvard neurologist with conflict of interest and suggested that the report played down research critical of Athena's test. Last May, a Harvard panel decided that Selkoe did not violate the university's conflict-of-interest rules. But the university didn't completely let Selkoe off the hook. He agreed to publish an unusual after-the-fact disclosure statement in The Neurobiology of Aging, the journal that published the original report in April 1998. In addition, the university said it plans to clarify its conflict-of-interest regulations to ensure that researchers disclose their industry links whenever they report on related research, said medical school spokesman Don Gibbons.

Selkoe regrets not noting his relationship with Athena Neurosciences in the NIH report. 'Otherwise,' he says, 'I stand by the accuracy and validity of the statements in the report.'

But not everyone agrees that this is a simple case of poor judgment. Susan de la Monte, a Harvard pathologist who helped develop a competing Alzheimer's test, says 'it's about time' Harvard dealt with Selkoe's dual roles as academic scientist and drug-company consultant. 'I have conflicts too,' she says. 'But I don't sit on a committee telling people to use the test.'

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