Beth Israel Seeks Lucrative Drug Industry Partnership
Potentially propelling Harvard Medical School to a "new level of cooperation" with the drug industry, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center has announced it is seeking to establish a highly collaborative partnership with a major pharmaceutical company, the Boston Globe reports. Hospital President Dr. Michael Rosenblatt, who previously worked for pharmaceutical giant Merck, says he has proposed the partnership to nearly 40 drug and biotechnology firms and is narrowing the field to finalists. Under the agreement, hospital and corporate scientists would work together at a new research facility on a "broad array" of medical specialties including cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, neuroscience, transplantation, women's health and infectious disease. Because this agreement would blanket discoveries in many fields, it is substantially different from limited partnerships at two other Harvard facilities: Massachusetts General Hospital has received $180 million from the Japanese cosmetic firm Shiseido over the past decade for first rights to dermatology-related findings, while the Dana Farber Cancer Institute has a similar deal with Novartis for discoveries related to new cancer drugs. According to the Globe, the breadth of Beth Israel's proposed partnership concerns some Harvard faculty who worry that giving a single company too much access to the hospital's "intellectual firepower" may prevent scientists from forming their own business partnerships. Rosenblatt says no single firm would have financial means or desire to license all medical discoveries; the partner would be paying for a "first look" at the hospital's portfolio, and all research passed over could then be taken to another company. In return for initial rights, the partner would pay the medical center a prenegotiated annual fee, initially for a five-year period.
Rosenblatt adds that the hospital "does not need an industry agreement to survive," but according to the Globe, Moody's Investors Service reported last month that Beth Israel is relying on the research partnership to provide over 50% of its turnaround income; the medical center lost $50 million last year on operations. Harvard Medical School Dean Dr. Joseph Martin says he would have to approve any agreement that involves medical school faculty, and he is looking to "strike a delicate balance" between Harvard's commitment to independence and the hospital's need for financial aid. He adds, "Beth Israel Deaconess is critical to us, and this is part of their plan to survive." The Globe reports that as partnerships between academic medical centers and the drug industry become more common, many are concerned that private companies will become too powerful a force in the research process, hampering academic freedom. While Rosenblatt says that an industry partnership benefits patients by bringing new medical treatments to market more quickly, others say collaborations can shift the focus of research from important science that may take years to develop to products that are more immediately profitable.
Harvard says that while "the concept of academic freedom" is built into its existing corporate partnerships, conflict-of-interest challenges still arise. For example, a recent discovery in the growth of blood vessels has implications for cosmetic hair growth, covered by the Shiseido agreement, but also for the curing of cancerous tumors -- an important finding that could be developed by a different company into a new cancer drug. Mass. General says it must consider Shiseido's "huge investment" and act carefully to ensure that the technology covered by the existing agreement does not leak out to a competitor. The Globe reports that most agreements between AMCs and drug companies have clauses to guard against secrecy that may impede academic freedom; for example, the industry partner cannot hold up publication for more than 30 days (the time it takes to file a patent), and if the research has emergency health implications, it can be published immediately (Kowalczyk, Boston Globe, 2/14).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.