Row over university link with complementary medicine firm

Australian academic resigns as La Trobe signs deal with Swisse, a ‘global wellness company’, to fund centre

February 13, 2014

A prominent campaigner for ethical medical advertising has made waves in Australia by resigning from La Trobe University in protest against its multimillion-dollar tie-up with a maker of complementary medicines.

Swisse – described by La Trobe as “Victoria’s leading global wellness company” – has signed an agreement to donate A$15 million (£8.3 million) over six years to the Melbourne-based university’s proposed Complementary Medicine Evidence Centre, to fund studies into the efficacy of its own products.

According to La Trobe, the centre will “undertake…independent research on the safety, efficacy and cost effectiveness of complementary medicines and nutriceuticals being sold in Australia”.

The efficacy of Swisse’s products has been the subject of some controversy. The firm was censured last year by the Therapeutic Products Advertising Complaints Resolution Panel for unverified therapeutic claims. It was also heavily criticised by medical campaigner Ken Harvey, an adjunct associate professor in La Trobe’s School of Public Health.

Dr Harvey cites the rulings in his resignation letter to La Trobe. He says the arrangement with the company creates a “fundamental conflict of interest” for the centre and could damage La Trobe’s reputation “given the track record of Swisse”.

He supports more research into the efficacy of complementary medicine, but such work should be done “at arm’s length from a particular company and overseen by an independent body”, he believes.

“Championing good science demands independence and protections from distortions that can develop if the outcomes are of pecuniary significance to the donors of the research funds,” he writes.

In response, La Trobe’s deputy vice-chancellor for research told the press that the details of the arrangement with Swisse would guarantee that the company could not influence research. “We will very carefully ensure that we are given complete independence around the publication of the data and the design of the experiments and the results good or bad, and we’ll make those publicly available,” Keith Nugent said.

La Trobe would also seek funding for the centre from other private and public sources, he added.

paul.jump@tsleducation.com

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