Nature Editorial: Building Bridges not Barriers
An editorial in Nature used the recent appointment of William Chin as a perfect example of why “industry talent should be welcomed into academia, not seen as a corrupting influence.” In his new role as executive dean for research at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Chin, who was a top executive at the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, will use his experience to create new treatments that will help numerous patients and help educate thousands of doctors.
Particularly interesting about Dr. Chin is that he spent 25 years at Harvard and its affiliated hospitals before moving to Eli Lilly 11 years ago. Critics believe that moving between companies and academia creates a conflict that taints the academic enterprise. Such opponents use the few examples that exist academic researchers' failed (mostly did not understand because of complex and different rules) to disclose their industry income.
As the editorial correctly asserts, such critics are misguided, and have “have conflated the very existence of industry–academia collaborations with failure to disclose those links.” In fact, critics need to be more mindful of the ongoing efforts of pharmaceutical companies, ACCME, and other health care providers who are constantly updating codes of ethics to increase transparency. As a result of such endeavors, those against industry and academic collaboration must abandon the view that “any and all cooperation between industry and academics is inherently suspect.”
Such a perspective “has created a poisonous atmosphere that has driven some young investigators to take up other careers,” which means less treatments and studies will be done that could help cure diseases today and in the future. One example the authors noted of such a stigmatized atmosphere took place last week, “Robert Califf, vice-chancellor for clinical research at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, told a conference at NIH headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland, about a recent meeting where the leaders of major academic medical centers were afraid to sit in the same room with industry leaders — with the goal of enhancing understanding and cooperation — for fear of an outcry either in Congress or the media.”
This kind of fear undermines the true value and significance of industry-academic collaboration: helping patients find new treatments through clinical studies, research and development. The reality is, appointments such as Dr. Chin’s and meetings with industry and academia “are not only appropriate, but essential for strengthening university research and for bridging the gap between lab and clinic — a gap that has bred a justifiable public impatience for cures at the advent of the century of biology.”
Like many physicians and researchers who have worked in/with industry and academia, Dr. Chin “has both a physician's appreciation of illness and an enviable scientific pedigree.” In fact, any significant, ethical or legal worries about his work with industry are nonexistent as “the chairs of the medical school's basic-science departments endorsed his hiring unanimously.”
The experience physicians like Dr. Chin gain allow researchers and physicians to find and connect laboratory discoveries to human disease. Discovering such connections gives doctors “the kind of management experience and insights into discovery and translation that can be got only in industry.” More importantly, having worked inside and with industry for so long, Dr. Chin and others with similar experience will use their knowledge “to inform their efforts to guide a medical school's scientific interactions with industry, in the drive to meet critical medical needs.”
To exclude people like Dr. Chin from working in academia would truly hurt patients, and physicians seeking highly needed training and experience with industry, and not just free lunches. In addition, Harvard is not the only example, as the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), last year named Susan Desmond-Hellmann, previously president of product development at biotech company Genentech, as its chancellor. Using her experience over the past six months since taking over, UCSF announced last week “collaboration with Genentech aimed at generating small-molecule drug candidates, a step that has proven a major obstacle in drug discovery.”
Ultimately, critics “fail to understand that industry–academia cooperation is essential if we are to speed the medical progress that everyone seeks.” Evidence of this progress will likely be seen in the coming years from the works of Dr. Chin and Ms. Desmond-Hellmann. Accordingly, critics of such collaboration must reevaluate their oppositions to consider what society will benefit from more: less interaction and experience with industry or more partnerships, such as those that have led to reducing heart disease, increasing cancer survival rates, and fighting HIV.