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Tobacco Cash Behind Cancer Study Shocks Scientists

Associated Press in Milwaukee – Updated on Mar 28, 2008

Revelations that tobacco money was behind a big study suggesting that lung scans might help save smokers from cancer has shocked the research community and raised fresh concern about industry influence in important science.

Two medical journals that published studies by Weill Medical College researchers at Cornell University in 2006 are now looking into tobacco cash and other financial ties that were not revealed. The prominent studies reported benefits from lung scans, which the Cornell team has long touted.

It is a crucial public health issue: dozens of groups, including such anti-smoking crusaders as the American Cancer Society, have given the Cornell team money to see if routinely screening smokers with CT scans can spot the world’s most lethal cancer in time to prevent deaths.

The federal government has also given money – even though scientists have criticised the Cornell study’s design and the government is conducting its own more rigorous study.

Many were stunned to learn on Wednesday that a foundation Cornell had set up and listed in the New England Journal of Medicine in October 2006 as a sponsor of the study actually received US$3.6 million from a parent company of cigarette maker Liggett Group. The tobacco source was reported in a story in The New York Times.

Liggett – whose owner Vector Group was the first to break with other tobacco companies and say that tobacco was addictive and deadly – announced its donation to the Cornell foundation in 2000 in a press release. But the foundation’s funding source was not disclosed to the journal.

On Wednesday, company spokeswoman Carrie Bloom noted in a statement that the company “had no control or influence over the research”.

National Cancer Institute director John Niederhuber said scientists must maintain the trust of patients in research studies, and “any breach of that trust is not simply disappointing but, I believe, unacceptable”.

Any findings from a study tainted by hidden industry ties “will be much less believable”, Sidney Wolfe, director of the Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, said. The problem was avoidable, he added.

“There are plenty of people around who are bright and knowledgeable and don’t have conflicts of interest. We need to look harder to find these people.”

The cancer society’s chief medical officer, Otis Brawley, said the society would not have contributed to the study if it knew “Big Tobacco” was co-funding the work. Still, there was no sign that the study’s findings were tainted, and “it is my belief that something can be learned that can be useful”, he said.

The chief Cornell researcher, Claudia Henschke, did not respond to an e-mail requesting comment. Weill’s dean, Antonio Gotto, said: “The claim that we set this foundation up in order to cover up the money just isn’t true.

“We made a public announcement that we were taking the money from the tobacco company.”

In retrospect, Dr Gotto said perhaps the tobacco cash and patents that Cornell researchers hold on related technology should have been disclosed in Dr Henschke’s journal articles. Instead, one listed only the Cornell foundation.

Catherine DeAngelis, editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Medical Association, said she contacted Dr Henschke months ago after others pointed out patents not disclosed in a July 2006 study.

Dr DeAngelis said Dr Henschke did not believe the patents were relevant to the research and resisted disclosing them.

“We’d been working with Dr Henschke trying to get her to write a letter of apology – which is our policy – and to take responsibility,” Dr DeAngelis said. “It was not easy to get her to do anything.”

Asked whether she would have published the research if the tobacco funding had been known, Dr DeAngelis said: “Absolutely not. I would have turned down the paper.”

A spokeswoman for the New England Journal, which published the Henschke paper listing the Cornell foundation as a sponsor, one of about 30, said only that the journal was investigating the matter.

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