Industry-funded medical research - is it hopelessly biased or does it meet higher standards than academic research does?

John Tierney points to a new study from the International Journal of Obesity that finds industry-sponsored research in obesity tends to meet higher standards for data reporting than academic studies do.

But what does this mean? Does this study refute previous claims of industry bias? Does it mean academic clinical research is inherently of lower quality? Do we need to fund fewer academic scientists and more industrial ones?

There has been some tendency in some corners of academia to knock industry-sponsored or -executed biomedical research as tainted. For a long time, graduate students who finished their PhDs and took industry jobs were looked upon as less successful than their peers who remained in academia. That culture has been changing, especially among younger scientists, as more and more graduates take industry jobs (even if they wanted them, there are not enough academic jobs for the all of the PhD and MD/PhD students we're training).

This means that industry-sponsored research has been more widely embraced by scientists in recent years, and many studies have found that such research is cropping up much more frequently in the literature.

There has been some harsh criticism of this trend, especially from editors of medical journals. This criticism shouldn't be viewed as just a gut, cultural reaction against the industry - these editors (as some of them have reported in books or interviews) have seen the worst abuses first hand, sort of like the police officer in your neighborhood who often sees the most negative elements of the community. There are genuine problems with transparency and potential conflict-of-interest situations in some of these studies (which, incidentally, may involve industry money but the conflict-of-interest usually resides in the academic researchers themselves).

One JAMA study, in a review of biomedical research in general, found that:

Aggregating the results of these articles showed a statistically significant association between industry sponsorship and pro-industry conclusions (pooled Mantel-Haenszel odds ratio, 3.60; 95% confidence interval, 2.63-4.91). Industry sponsorship was also associated with restrictions on publication and data sharing.

A Canadian medical journal reported a similar finding: for medical and surgical trials:

Industry-funded trials are more likely to be associated with statistically significant pro-industry findings, both in medical trials and surgical interventions.
It happens in psychiatry studies too:

Author conflict of interest appears to be prevalent among psychiatric clinical trials and to be associated with a greater likelihood of reporting a drug to be superior to placebo.

Is it really that bad? Well, maybe not.

This report found that funding source didn't matter:

"An increase in the percentage of clinical trials with reported author-industry affiliation was observed for all journals. Regardless of funding source, the majority of clinical trials reported clinical outcomes that favored the study drug."

A survey of dermatology studies finds a mixed picture:
Forty-three percent of analyzed studies included at least one author with a reported conflict of interest. These studies were more likely to report a positive result, demonstrate higher methodological quality, and include a larger sample size.

The picture is also complicated when it comes to Orthopedics:
Positive findings were not more common in studies authored by individuals with a conflict of interest related to research or institutional funding (93.5% [143 of 153] compared with 91.8% [313 of 341]; relative risk = 1.0 [95% confidence interval = 0.95 to 1.5]; p = 0.65). In the multivariate analysis, the factors that remained significant predictors of positive outcomes were royalties (p = 0.002) and consultant or employee status (p = 0.038).

CONCLUSIONS: Self-reported conflicts of interest are common in orthopaedic research, particularly in the subspecialty fields of adult reconstruction of the knee, adult reconstruction of the hip, and spine. Presentations authored by individuals with a conflict of interest related to royalties, stock options, or consulting or employee status were significantly more likely to describe positive findings. While there may be distinct benefits associated with industry support of orthopaedic research, safeguards must be established to maintain public trust in the medical research establishment.

The same is true of gastrointestinal clinical research:

The proportion of research funded by industry has more than doubled during the last decade and currently comprises almost half of the funding for GI clinical research. Industry-sponsored studies are, on average, of superior methodologic quality to studies funded by other sources. Industry-sponsored studies in leading GI journals were no more likely than other studies to publish results that favored the study sponsor, although an extremely high percentage of all studies in these journals reported positive results. There has been only a modest decline in studies not acknowledging a funding source.

What it probably comes down to is this: corporations often have the staff and the resources to do excellent studies. They also have a strong financial motivation to see a successful outcome.  This does not necessarily translate into biased studies, but financial and methodological transparency is important for maintaining trust in the quality of the studies. Academic researchers are of course not immune to conflict-of-interest issues when they are funded by or have a financial stake in the corporation whose drug or treatment they are testing, and they should be held to high standards for disclosing any of those potential conflicts.

We shouldn't blindly reject non-academic biomedical research, but neither should we risk the public trust by failing to make the financial stakes involved in a study transparent. Even if the research itself is good, attempts to hide financial stakes can do damage to the credibility of the study.

John Tierney asks, "By stigmatizing industry-sponsored research, is their 'hierarchy of purity' doing more harm than good?"

It's clear that we should not stigmatize industry research. But to be fair to the research community, we should keep this in perspective: much of this controversy is over clinical research. In the basic biological sciences, and I'm guessing in the physical and computer sciences as well, corporate science research has had much less of an image problem in the community of academic scientists.