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Explaining Conflict of interest in research issues


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Full disclosure a must to keep validity of research

By: Ryan Dashek /The Daily Cardinal - March 31, 2008

Sources of funding for research should be noted completely to highlight potential conflicts of interest.

Late last week in an article from the New York Times, it was revealed a research study published in 2006 suggesting that computer tomography scanning would reduce deaths resulting from lung cancer by about 80 percent was actually funded by a cigarette company. Cornell University professor Dr. Claudia Henschke and the rest of her research team startled the medical world when her published findings reported that roughly 128,000 of the 180,000 deaths that lung cancer causes each year could be prevented by using CT scanning.

The reasoning is that CT scanning can detect tumors when they are still smaller and more easily treatable than when detected by standard X-rays. This has caused many health professionals to accept and apply this new form of lung cancer detection. However, since it has been revealed that Dr. Henschke’s work was funded by over $3.5 million in grants given to her by a small, relatively unknown charity that was actually created by cigarette manufacturer the Liggett Group, much of her research and findings have fallen under scrutiny.

Several people argue that the source of the funds should not matter and we should still employ many of the ideas and suggestions that her report makes. However, having been funded almost solely by a cigarette manufacturer, the results of her research on detection of lung cancer need serious reconsideration before practical application continues.

Many people wonder why a tobacco company would support lung cancer research and how this may make the research more biased, especially research that deals with only lung cancer detection. Critics of Dr. Henschke’s work point out that a cigarette company might want to support this type of research because it downplays the risks of smoking and lung cancer.

They propose that this study implies lung cancer is not as bad as everyone makes it out to be because screening can save people, and this is ridiculous. By making tobacco appear less dangerous to people, this cigarette company could potentially profit from Dr. Henschke’s research. Increasing profits and swaying the results might be exactly why they felt compelled to provide grants.

CT scans also have certain dangers that need to be accounted for. This includes radiation risks, though X-rays also carry this same hazard. More troubling, however, is that CT scans could potentially detect cancers that are no longer growing and thus are not a threat to the patient’s health.

When detecting these sorts of cancers, patients subsequently undergo dangerous medical procedures such as biopsies and lung surgery. Yet, these would be unnecessary if the cancer was no longer growing.

Dr. Henschke and her research team should not have used tobacco money to fund their research on lung cancer, but since they did, the scientific paper the research team published should have at least disclosed where the funding came from. Instead, it listed a small, unknown charity organization, disguising a large cigarette manufacturer.

By accepting this cigarette money, Dr. Henschke may very well have some bias toward tobacco and thus could have downplayed the seriousness of lung cancer in her research, either deliberately or subconsciously.

Unfortunately, this is not the first case in which researchers have used a small charity organization in order to receive grants from an institution that could potentially benefit if the results of the study support their products. This sort of tactic is actually more common than many think but is nevertheless a serious breach of bioethics.

Although it is often hard to fund their work, researchers cannot continue to accept grants from industries that have a personal stake in the outcome of the study. If they do so, however, they should at the very least accurately and openly explain where the research received its funding. To not do so is an infringement on bioethics, as their research could potentially affect thousands of lives. As such, each researcher needs to always remain neutral on their subject matter so that bias is never formed and results are not skewed. And skewed results, especially in the medical field, can yield fatal consequences.

Ryan Dashek is a sophomore majoring in biology. Please send responses to opinion@dailycardinal.com.

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