Big pharma sways breast cancer research

February 27, 2007

For the first time, data accrued over a decade show that the involvement of the pharmaceutical industry in clinical breast cancer research may have significantly influenced study design, focus, and results, according to a study published in the April 1 issue of Cancer.

For the first time, data accrued over a decade show that the involvement of the pharmaceutical industry in clinical breast cancer research may have significantly influenced study design, focus, and results, according to a study published in the April 1 issue of Cancer.

The pharmaceutical industry's support for research and development has increasingly outspent that of the federal government since 1992. The trend has made researchers wary that the collaboration between drug corporations and academy could have potential impact on the nature and quality of research. It has also suggested potential conflicts of interest.

More than one million women worldwide get a breast cancer diagnosis each year, which turns treatment research into an important public health issue as well as a lucrative business.

Dr. Jeffrey Peppercorn, an assistant professor of oncology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill, and colleagues at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston evaluated the impact of the shift from public to private funding on breast cancer clinical research. They reviewed 140 studies reporting breast cancer therapy results over the past decade in select journals at five-year intervals.

The group found that breast cancer treatment trials supported by pharmaceutical companies were more likely to report positive results than nonsponsored studies. The researchers also found significant differences in trial design and endpoints between industry-sponsored trials compared with publicly funded trials.

Almost half of the 140 studies showed some form of drug industry involvement through authorship, drug supply, or financial support. Studies with pharmaceutical support or participation were more likely to report positive results, favoring the experimental therapy (p = 0.02). These studies were also more likely to use single-arm designs (p = 0.03) and show a selection bias toward patients with advanced disease (p = 0.06). The study also found that drug company participation increased from 44% in 1993 to 58% in 2003.

These types of studies help identify new effective drugs. They may not answer questions about proper patient selection for treatment and management of disease, however, the researchers wrote in the study.

The impact of growing pharmaceutical industry involvement in breast cancer clinical research seems to mimic a pattern seen in other fields of medical research. Although this industry-academy research partnership could result in improved therapies, the authors cautioned that it could also focus on some clinical problems while neglecting others.

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