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NY Times - 3.2.09BOSTON — In a first-year pharmacology class at Harvard Medical School, Matt Zerden grew wary as the professor promoted the benefits of cholesterol drugs and seemed to belittle a student who asked about side effects.
Mr. Zerden later discovered something by searching online that he began sharing with his classmates. The professor was not only a full-time member of the Harvard Medical faculty, but a paid consultant to 10 drug companies, including five makers of cholesterol treatments.
“I felt really violated,” Mr. Zerden, now a fourth-year student, recently recalled. “Here we have 160 open minds trying to learn the basics in a protected space, and the information he was giving wasn’t as pure as I think it should be.”
Mr. Zerden’s minor stir four years ago has lately grown into a full-blown movement by more than 200 Harvard Medical School students and sympathetic faculty, intent on exposing and curtailing the industry influence in their classrooms and laboratories, as well as in Harvard’s 17 affiliated teaching hospitals and institutes.
They say they are concerned that the same money that helped build the school’s world-class status may in fact be hurting its reputation and affecting its teaching.
The students argue, for example, that Harvard should be embarrassed by the F grade it recently received from the American Medical Student Association, a national group that rates how well medical schools monitor and control drug industry money.
The students say they worry that pharmaceutical industry scandals in recent years — including some criminal convictions, billions of dollars in fines, proof of bias in research and publishing and false marketing claims — have cast a bad light on the medical profession. And they criticize Harvard as being less vigilant than other leading medical schools in monitoring potential financial conflicts by faculty members.
But no one disputes that many individual Harvard Medical faculty members receive tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars a year through industry consulting and speaking fees. Under the school’s disclosure rules, about 1,600 of 8,900 professors and lecturers have reported to the dean that they or a family member had a financial interest in a business related to their teaching, research or clinical care. The reports show 149 with financial ties to Pfizer and 130 with Merck.
NY Times - 3.3.09Harvard Medical School’s rules say that students on campus are supposed to be off-limits to drug company representatives.
That is why David Tian, a first-year Harvard medical student, said he found it “strange and off-putting” last fall when a man who identified himself as a Pfizer employee took a cellphone photo of students as they demonstrated against pharmaceutical industry influence on campus. “We could only assume he intended to share this with his company,” Mr. Tian said.
The students did not get the man’s name, but they took his picture.
Asked about the mysterious Pfizer man on campus and shown his picture, a company spokesman said he had recently contacted the employee and concluded that he had done nothing wrong. Declining to name him, the spokesman, Ray Kerins, said the employee had photographed the students for personal use.
Mr. Kerins preferred to talk about Pfizer’s support of the medical school, which, according to Harvard officials, includes private payments to at least 149 faculty members, corporate donations of $350,000 to the school last year, $234,000 for continuing medical education classes, and two Pfizer-financed research projects on campus.
“We’ve got top-class collaboration in place with leading medical institutions around the world, and we’re very proud of them,” Mr. Kerins said.
Whatever the unidentified Pfizer representative was up to, Mr. Tian and other students said they saw him again two weeks after the campus protest, at a public lecture on campus about conflicts of interest in medical research.