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Pharma Ties at Harvard Medical School

Harvard University (Lisa Poole/AP Photo)Two rival gangs are battling it out at Harvard Medical School. No, they're not fashioning makeshift weapons out of stethoscopes and tongue depressors, but there are millions of dollars at stake, along with what some say is Harvard's reputation.

The first group, made up of around 200 students and faculty members, is "intent on exposing and curtailing the industry influence in their classrooms and laboratories, as well as in Harvard's 17 affiliated teaching hospitals and institutes," reports today's New York Times.

Harvard recently earned an F from the American Medical Student Association, which grades medical schools' conflict-of-interest policies on money from the pharmaceutical industry, even as other top-tier schools like the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford and Columbia secured A's and B's.

Harvard also faced embarrassment last year when Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) accused two of its psychiatrists of potentially breaking federal and university conflict-of-interest rules by failing to fully report huge fees from drug companies.

A first-year Harvard Medical student tells the Times:

Before coming here, I had no idea how much influence companies had on medical education. And it's something that's purposely meant to be under the table, providing information under the guise of education when that information is also presented for marketing purposes.

But there's another faction that thinks industry funds have gotten an unfair rap, and it insists that they're a necessity. The medical school's new dean, Dr. Jeffrey Flier, seems to agree to a certain extent. According to the Times, Flier doesn't want to "tighten the spigot" on industry money: "One entirely appropriate source, if done properly, is industrial funds," he said.

But Flier also "wants Harvard to catch up with the best practices at other leading medical schools." He recently formed a 19-member committee to "re-examine" Harvard's conflict-of-interest policies, which the Times says currently do not require faculty members "to report specific amounts received for speaking or consulting, other than broad indications like 'more than $30,000.'" Nor are there "limits on companies' making outright gifts to faculty -- free meals, tickets, trips or the like."

On the other hand, Harvard Medical School does require all professors and lecturers to "disclose their industry ties in class -- a blanket policy that has been adopted by no other leading medical school."

The committee examining these policies will meet on Thursday, but any suggestions to sever the school's ties with industry will likely meet a wall of opposition. The school's Web site has this to say on ties between "biomedical research institutions" and the industry: "The Harvard Faculty of Medicine remains strongly committed to continued growth in these innovative and mutually beneficial relationships." In other words, they're probably not going away any time soon.

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