University faces questions over drug manufacturer influence

Tufts reviewing links to the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma

January 21, 2019

Tufts University will review its connection to OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma in the wake of court documents filed last week detailing explosive allegations about the company, the mega-donors that own it and their alleged influence over the university’s medical school.

The court filing from Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey alleges that members of the Sackler family knew that the opioid was causing overdoses and were involved in efforts to mislead doctors and the public about the powerful painkiller’s effects. They did not tell authorities about reports that the drug was being abused and peddled on the street, it says.

One member of the family, Richard Sackler, wanted to blame drug abusers, writing in a 2001 email that abusers “are the culprits and the problem” and that they “are reckless criminals,” the filing claims.

The filing alleges that Purdue funded “an entire degree program at Tufts University to influence Massachusetts doctors to use its drugs”. Purdue sponsored an annual Sackler Lecture at Tufts on pain medicine, and Richard Sackler held a seat on the school of medicine’s board for many years, it alleges.

Tufts issued a statement saying that the university has been and remains deeply committed to the highest ethical and scientific standards.

“The information raised in the attorney general’s lawsuit against Purdue Pharmaceuticals and other defendants is deeply troubling,” it said. “We will be undertaking a review of Tufts’ connection with Purdue to ensure that we were provided accurate information, that we followed our conflict of interest guidelines and that we adhered to our principles of academic and research integrity. Based on this review, we will determine if any changes need to be made moving forward.”

Members of the Sackler family have given money to scores of universities and museums over the years. Donations have resulted in their names being inscribed on campuses, including the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences and the Arthur M. Sackler Center for Medical Education at Tufts and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard University.

Both Tufts and Harvard found themselves facing questions from a local politician when the mayor of Somerville, Massachusetts, tweeted about the Sackler name on their campuses. Joseph A. Curtatone called for talks about striking the names from campus.

The public should be demanding that the universities ask questions, Curtatone said in an interview with The Boston Globe. “Something’s wrong here,” he said.

The Boston Globe noted that Harvard Art Museums have pointed out that the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation provides no continuing funding for the museum: “Arthur Sackler generously donated the funds in 1982 that paid for the construction of the original building that housed the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at 485 Broadway. In 2014, the Arthur M. Sackler Museum was relocated to 32 Quincy Street, as part of the renovation and expansion of the Harvard Art Museums.”

Tufts provided similar background information in response to a question about the Somerville mayor’s call to remove the Sackler name from campus: “The Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences was established in 1980 by Jean Mayer, then president of Tufts University, and the board of trustees to promote collaborative and interdisciplinary graduate education to advance health. In 1983, Jean Mayer and the board of trustees established the Arthur M. Sackler Center. In both cases, the naming gifts were provided to the university more than a decade before OxyContin was introduced to the marketplace.”

Arthur Sackler is one of three now-deceased brothers who formed an elder generation of the Sackler family. Those who defend his name argue that he should not be linked to OxyContin. He died in 1987, while the drug was not released until 1995.

At Tufts, ties to Purdue and the Sacklers allegedly go much deeper than when its schools were named and for whom, however. The attorney general’s filing spells out other ways that the Sacklers and the university have been involved with each other since the 1980s.

“Later, in 1999, the Sackler family made a more targeted gift, establishing the Tufts Masters of Science in Pain Research, Education, and Policy (‘MSPREP Program’),” it says. “Kathe Sackler co-presided over the decision to fund the MSPREP Program. Richard Sackler attended the launch symposium in Boston and paid Tufts hundreds of thousands of dollars. Purdue also sponsored the annual Sackler Lecture at Tufts on a topic in pain medicine. For many years, Richard took a seat on the board of the Tufts University School of Medicine.”

The MSPREP programme “bought” Purdue name recognition, goodwill and access to doctors at hospitals, the suit alleges. Staffers sent a report to the Sacklers showing that Tufts and its affiliated teaching hospital helped the company develop a publication for patients about “taking control” of pain.

“Purdue got to control research on the treatment of pain coming out of a prominent and respected institution of learning,” the filing says. “Staff told the Sacklers that Purdue employees regularly taught a Tufts seminar about opioids in Massachusetts as part of the MSPREP Program.”

In 2014, Purdue medical liaison staff “succeeded in getting two Purdue unbranded curricula approved for teaching” to Tufts students, it alleges.

Purdue Pharma, based in Stamford, Connecticut, did not respond to requests for comment. The company sent a statement to WBUR saying that Ms Healey is attempting to vilify “a single manufacturer whose medicines represent less than 2 per cent of opioid pain prescriptions rather than doing the hard work of trying to solve a complex public health crisis”.

It also said that “the complaint distorts critical facts and cynically conflates prescription opioid medications with illegal heroin and fentanyl, which are the leading cause of overdose deaths in Massachusetts”.

Almost 218,000 people in the US died from overdoses related to prescription opioids between 1999 and 2017. Overdose deaths from prescription opioids were five times higher in 2017 than they were in 1999.

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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