Penn prof explains business side of academic research

There is a big difference between being paid by a pharmaceutical company for speaking at a conference about a new treatment and conducting clinical studies on it.

That was the message conveyed to me by one reader of my column Friday about the tens of millions of dollars in payments made by drug companies to health-care professionals in 2010 and being disclosed now.

When a pharmaceutical company, such as Pfizer Inc., pays a doctor $500 to speak at a conference, that money goes directly to the doctor.

But when Pfizer pays for research being done in a laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, that money goes to the institution, not into the principal investigator’s pocket.

“Without research money - whether it be from industry or the federal government - hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs would be lost at an institution like the University of Pennsylvania,” Dr. Elliot V. Hersh, a professor of pharmacology at Penn’s School of Dental Medicine, wrote in an e-mail.

Call it the business side of research in an academic setting.

Hersh provided an example from his work as a clinical investigator on a study involving Advil Liqui-Gels, an over-the-counter pain reliever, to show how such money is disbursed.

Hersh was awarded a $250,000 grant to do a study in which each of the 210 subjects, who’d had impacted wisdom teeth surgically removed, swallowed two Liqui-Gels and two caplets. (Neither the subjects nor the researchers knew who received active medication and who did not.)

Whitehall Pharmaceuticals (now a part of Pfizer) wrote the checks out to the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania, Hersh said. About $60,000 went for indirect costs, such as for lights, heat, and use of Penn facilities.

The rest of the money was used to pay:

  • Hersh’s research coordinator’s salary and benefits for almost two years;
  • Part of the salaries of Hersh and the Penn oral surgeons involved in the study;
  • Study participants, who spent about eight hours filling out various pain questionnaires,
  • And for travel to present study data at a research meeting.

In addition, industry-sponsored clinical trials are subject to all sorts of audits by the drug company, the FDA, and the university itself. Hersh said he had gone through one FDA audit in his career (not on the Advil study). He called it “nerve-racking” and a “real learning experience.”

Hersh stressed that he agreed on the need for greater transparency regarding payments made by the pharmaceutical industry to university and health-system doctors and scientists.

But he wanted to make sure the research-driven payments that drug companies are posting on their websites are being given their proper context:

“These very important, industry-sponsored trials whose results often can lead to better and safer therapeutic interventions for the general public should be performed at places who have doctors and scientists with the expertise to perform these types of research studies.”