Hospital drugs inquiry

November 12, 1999

Philip Fine reports on an Ottawa union conference on commercialisation

An independent inquiry is to investigate how a Canadian university and one of its teaching hospitals may have failed in coming to the defence of a researcher.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers announced the second inquiry into events at the University of Toronto and the Hospital for Sick Children involving blood researcher Nancy Olivieri, who was punished for making known negative findings of her drug trial.

Dr Olivieri's efforts to change the trial's consent forms in 1995 after finding a dangerous iron build-up in her patients from the drug deferiprone led to her dismissal from the study.

When the university was asked to defend her against drug manufacturer Apotex's legal threats, it said the situation fell outside its jurisdiction. The hospital later fired her as head of its haemoglobinopathy programme for "personnel" reasons.

After a public outcry and intense international lobbying, the university and hospital reinstated her in January this year and agreed to pay her Can$150,000 (Pounds 63,500) legal bill.

Many are dismissing the first inquiry held last year headed by Arnold Naimark, who failed to disclose a conflict of interest. Dr Naimark wrote to the government while he was president of the University of Manitoba, lobbying in support of Apotex. The inquiry's credibility also suffered after not getting testimony from Dr Olivieri, who had requested a more independent inquiry.

The new inquiry will be held by three unpaid academics, including scientist Patricia Baird, who chaired a royal commission on reproductive technology.

Letters of support for Apotex seem to be Toronto's Achilles' heel as its president Robert Prichard last month apologised to its board of governors for sending a letter to help the company to obtain a review of drug-patent protection.

The letter was sent to several members of the government, including prime minister Jean Chretien.

Mr Prichard believed that not getting the review would threaten a proposed Can$20 million donation to Toronto, part of a Can$55 million gift Apotex still says it is negotiating with the university.

Dr Olivieri told the conference: "This has been a long campaign of vilification, outdone only by the university and the hospital."

Oxford University regius professor Sir David Weatherall helped lobby for a settlement in January and attended Dr Olivieri's talk. He will give evidence to the inquiry. He said that he has seen other situations where pharmaceutical companies have exerted pressures not to publish negative findings and says universities must make a stand. "With more and more interaction between academics and industry, universities have to get their acts together to protect their scientists."

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