Eyes on the prize

Nobel prize that is.

The pharmaceutical industry has been extremely successful in influencing the medical establishment. For example:

  • Individual physicians through sales people, freebies, CME, and consulting arrangements
  • Peer-reviewed journals through company-funded research, ghostwriters, subscriptions, and mass reprint buys
  • Guideline-writing groups through grants and the tools mentioned above

The industry has been so successful that physicians and their organizations have lost some of their standing with the public. It’s pretty hard to find a pristine organization or person out there.

It’s possible that AstraZeneca may have found such a group, however: the committee that awards the Nobel Prize. From the Toronto Star (Nobel prize probe launched)

Swedish anti-corruption agents are investigating allegations that pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca influenced the awarding of this year’s Nobel Prize in medicine…

Schulz’s investigation was sparked by claims in the European press that AstraZeneca’s sponsorship of two Nobel promotional companies – Nobel Media and Nobel Web – influenced the choice for this year’s prize in medicine. As well, two Swedish academics on the committee have close ties to AstraZeneca – one sits on the company’s board of directors, while the other was a former consultant to the pharmaceutical company.

Part of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded this fall to Harald zur Hausen, a German scientist who discovered the links between human papilloma viruses and cervical cancer. The discovery could be a financial bonanza for AstraZeneca, which holds the patents on ingredients in the vaccines used to fight the viruses.

AstraZeneca stands to make millions from Gardasil, made by Merck, as well as GlaxoSmithKline’s Cervarix, thanks to patents it holds.

The company says it isn’t –and couldn’t be– so:

“Because the Nobel Committee of Karolinska Institute, and not the Nobel companies, elects candidates for the prize, AstraZeneca will not be able to influence who will be awarded the Nobel Prize, nor do we ever seek to,” Laura Woodin, manager of media relations for AstraZeneca in the U.S., said in a statement to the Star. Nobel Foundation director Michael Sohlman was equally adamant about the strict separation between fundraising and the selection of Nobel laureates.

“The foundation has 100 per cent confidence in the integrity of the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute, as we have in the other prize-awarding institutes,” Sohlman said in a telephone interview from Stockholm yesterday.

It’s possible that the company is completely innocent. But we know enough about pharmaceutical industry practices to recognize that the claim is plausible.

December 18, 2008

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