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Thursday, 21 March 2013 11:04

A Pepsi Nutrition Fellowship at Yale, You Got it!

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yaleIn an interview by Kathrin Lassila for the Yale Alumni Magazine a short time back, outgoing Yale President Richard Levin sat for a Q and A justifying corporate and pharmaceutical funding of research at the university.

Levin admits that the university is, in essence, engaging in a corporate partnership with one research investor, Gilead Sciences, in which Yale would license back to Gilead any patented findings that would be profitable.  The Gilead investment (which is what it is, despite the euphemisms from New Haven) brings the total of corporate research funding to $20 million at Yale, but that appears to be just the beginning of a growing direct relationship between corporations and the prestigious Ivy League institution.

Indeed, the magazine interview is entitled, "Corporate funding for medical science."  Granted, the rapidly developing relationships between corporations seeking profitable research outcomes and universities is complex, including how the grants can often piggyback on government funding that is providing, indirectly, subsidies for the private sector backed academic research.

Levin, however, unapologetically endorses such creeping for-profit intrusions into the Ivory Tower. In his interview with Lasilla, who is the editor of the Yale publication for alumni, Levin, a PhD economist, rebuffs a pointed question with some academic administrator jabberwocky:

[Lasilla]: A Yale medical school professor, Cary Gross, has found that drug studies are 3.6 times more likely to be favorable when they’re company funded. Yale, like many universities, does some of these studies.

[Levin]: Yes, but you’re talking now about clinical trials, as opposed to research and discovery partnerships like the Gilead and Pfizer arrangements. Clinical testing of drugs for safety and efficacy is essential, and Yale has processes to ensure that conflicts of interest are eliminated or managed. It’s important for the public interest that we learn which drugs work and which don’t, and which have unacceptably toxic side effects. Besides, these tests can provide useful scientific information that will help scientists advance towards the next set of discoveries. As long as there is appropriate oversight, clinical trials are a good thing.

Going back to research and discovery activities, I don’t see much problem there.

But when asked by Lasilla, "What’s a recent proposal that was turned down?", Levin responds:

Very few get turned down today, because we have well-established ground rules on corporate funding. Nonetheless, we did have a recent case where we turned down corporate support because the faculty investigator proposing to do the work had a substantial consulting contract with the sponsoring company.

Heavens to Betsy!  At least the line is drawn somewhere!

Not so when it comes to a Pepsi fellowship at Yale:

[Lasilla]: Pepsi is funding a graduate fellowship at Yale—in nutrition, which does make one sit up and take notice.

[Levin]: Pepsi provides funding for one PhD student a year and has no influence over the selection of that person.

Ah, that is reassuring, indeed.  There's nothing like drinking a bottle of Pepsi with a Yale degree.

As for the Gilead Sciences financing of Yale research, Levin provides an answer of the kind Pentagon officials offer when they want to obfuscate an issue that they are being pressured to respond to in a congressional hearing.

[Lasilla]: Gilead Sciences has given Yale funding to analyze tumor cells for harmful mutations, and then to search for drug possibilities that Yale might license to Gilead. [“See Drug Company Bets on Basic Research.”] How unusual is this arrangement?

[Levin]: The Gilead partnership will advance our basic knowledge of what mutations cause disease and of the mechanisms and pathways by which these mutations have their impact. It’s a novel form of partnership, because Gilead will be supporting both basic and translational research [to translate lab discoveries into medical practice] rather than just licensing a molecule, at the end of that discovery process, to develop it into a drug….

Yet, in the article in the magzine Lasilla cites, "See Drug Company Bets on Basic Research," she acknowledges critics who claim both Gilead and Yale are benefiting from government funding:

Collaborations like these have their critics. “The company and the academic institution are essentially business partners, both benefiting from NIH-funded research,” writes Harvard lecturer Marcia Angell, a former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, in an e-mail interview. Such arrangements, she says, can distort the research agenda.

The amount of corporate grants to Yale for bio-medical research are not a large part of its budget, but Levin is signaling a trend that corporations are going to drive more and more of the research at universities.

"In fact," Levin declares, "I believe that as a nation, we’re going to need more collaboration between the drug companies and universities and the government funding agencies in order to make progress and to maintain our national leadership in the pharmaceutical industry and in drug discovery."

Basic research in academia has led to astounding accomplishments on behalf of humanity, proceeding toward findings and revelations simply because researchers had the freedom to explore without having a commercial agenda.

As President Levin portends, those days are passing as the highest academic levels of our innovative educational and research capabilities gradually become arms of the profit-making sector.

(In full disclosure, the author of this commentary is a graduate of Yale University.)

(Photo: CanWeBowlPlease)