Pitt partners with pharma despite criticism

By Emily Brindley / Staff Writer

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Despite criticism that Pitt’s partnership with a pharmaceutical company is ethically unjust, Pitt says the research has lifesaving potential.

Pitt announced in early November that it will begin research this spring to develop new drugs for rare diseases through a collaboration with Shire Plc, a pharmaceuticals company headquartered in Dublin, Ireland, that produces Adderall XR and Vyvanse. The collaboration will allow Shire to fund proposals from Pitt researchers for new drugs to treat rare and often genetic diseases. In the wake of the partnership — which Pitt has touted as an educational opportunity rather than an economic one — several professors have said the partnership will not allow equal access to medical findings.

In April, the University Times published an open letter, from professors Jackie Smith of the sociology department and Michael Goodhart of the department of political science, to Chancellor Patrick Gallagher questioning the ethics of partnering with commercial companies.

“Commercialization has its place, but it also carries substantial risks,” Goodhart and Smith wrote in the letter.

The professors expressed concern that the partnership could limit the benefits of the research to certain wealthy people and could compromise the validity of the research.

“The open and free exchange of research and data is essential to advancing scientific knowledge, and commodification threatens this fundamental principle of scientific inquiry,” the letter said.

Gallagher responded to Smith and Goodhart’s concerns in an open letter saying the research that will come out of this partnership will be invaluable in the medical field internationally and at Pitt.

“Your letter is a powerful reminder that our core mission is bigger than any of its component activities,” Gallagher wrote. “Our fundamental mission to ‘improve the world through knowledge’ includes many forms of positive impact, and certainly is not limited to driving economic growth or commercial returns.”

Despite the fact that an additional 76 faculty members signed onto Smith and Goodhart’s letter by the time of publication, the University formed a “joint steering committee” of scientists from Pitt and Shire.

Researchers have until Dec. 15, to submit research project proposals to the committee, which will determine which proposals to fund. According to Pitt’s Department of Human Genetics chair, Dietrich Stephan, the Pitt half of the committee includes Stephan, D. Lansing Taylor, director of the University of Pittsburgh Drug Discovery Institute, and David Finegold, a professor of human genetics at Pitt.

All six scientists in the committee must unanimously approve a research proposal in order to award funding.  Shire will fully fund every approved proposal, both financially and with the full resource infrastructure that is available to Shire’s independent research labs.

Approved proposals from the first round of submissions expect funding in the spring. Pitt will benefit financially not only from the money funneled into specific research labs, but also from the royalties of the sale of any drugs that make it to the market, according to Stephan.

“These are really industrial-scale drug development programs,” Stephan said.

The program aims to develop treatment for diseases such as cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease and hereditary hemorrhagic telangiectasia, a genetic disorder that results in abnormal blood vessel formation.

A spokesperson for the partnership, Allison Hydzik, said the real ethical issue is that the University uses tax dollars to fund research.

As the vice chancellor for economic partnerships at Pitt, Rebecca Bagley oversees collaborations such as the one with Shire and ensures the proper faculty can become involved in the partnerships.

According to Bagley, Pitt hasn’t, as of right now, negotiated the dispersal of any potential royalties. Bagley said this partnership might result in greater job opportunities, specifically at Shire, for any graduate or medical students involved in the collaborative research.

Though Bagley said the partnership will benefit everyone involved, Smith disagreed, saying that the findings will only be beneficial to those who can afford them.

“As we commercialize universities, we’re contributing to a more unequal and less just society,” Smith said in an email. “In addition, we’re violating a fundamental principle of science, which requires the free exchange of information in order to foster new learning that builds upon previous discoveries.”

Stephan said the purpose of these commercial partnerships is not to make money, but are necessary if Pitt wants to make a difference in health care.

“The only way to get these basic scientific innovations into the marketplace is through a commercial partner, or through commercialization,” Stephan said.

Universities partnering with commercial companies is not new at Pitt. According to Pitt’s website, Pitt collaborates with 80 universities and corporate partners in the Pittsburgh area. Most recently, in July 2012, Pitt and Sanofi Pasteur, a pharmaceutical company, worked in a collaborative partnership on developing a universal flu vaccine. In March 2012, Pitt and UPMC entered a research partnership with Johnson & Johnson Corporate Office of Science and Technology.

In the Shire collaboration, Stephan heads the partnership for Pitt. Stephan said Pitt and Shire conducted negotiations for nearly a year before announcing the partnership, and that Pitt does not have a set end date for the research.

“There is no time limit on it,” Stephan said. “We hope it will last a very long time.”

After Pitt announced the partnership with Shire, Smith said commercializing necessities, such as health care, leads to increased costs for citizens who need medical care, so that only the wealthy can afford the “commodity” of medicine, widening the gap between rich and poor.

Smith said this is particularly applicable to pharmaceutical companies.

“[Pharmaceutical companies] contribute to the commodification and privatization of health care and access, making essential medicines less and less accessible to those who need them,” Smith said.

Through the collaboration with Shire, Pitt intends to develop drugs that will increase the lifespan of “million dollar babies,” as Stephan describes the children born with the rare diseases that Pitt and Shire plan to research.

Pitt also wants to lower the health care costs of treating the debilitating effects and symptoms of these diseases.

“We share a common goal with Shire, and I think that common goal is research and development that leads to cure or prevention of disease,” Bagley said.

Smith continues to question whether the public will benefit from the commercialization of research, or if it’s only Pitt that will see the benefits.

“Instead of seeing universities as a resource and ally for communities, residents see us as inaccessible, privileged spaces that contribute to the challenges they face,” Smith said in an email. “Even though their tax dollars help support these public institutions, the public is not able to benefit from the results of our work.”

For Stephan, the notion that the collaboration with Shire will only allow wealthy people to benefit is far from reality.

“I think that’s absurd. It’s exactly the opposite,” Stephan said. “We are trying to improve the lives of people suffering around the world, and that’s a noble goal.”

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