Financial Ties to Big Pharma Companies Raise Risk of Research Bias, Study Finds

pharma money

Financial ties between researchers and the pharmaceutical companies that make the drugs they are studying are independently associated with positive trial results, suggesting bias in the evidence base, a new study has found.

For the study, which was published in the BMJ yesterday, researchers examined the results of 195 drug trials reported in 2013.

Led by experts from the University of California San Francisco, the researchers found that in 58 percent of trials, the lead investigator had at least some degree of financial tie to the company that made the drug being tested.

Arrangements included direct payment to the researchers, the payment of travel expenses, honorariums, payment for advisory work, or stock ownership.

A related BMJ editorial titled The Ties That Bind further explains the findings:

Substantial evidence shows that sponsorship or funding of trials of drugs and devices by companies producing the drug or device results in publications that tend to favour the sponsor’s product. Personal financial ties—including travel expenses, honorariums, payment for advisory work, or stock ownership—between commercial companies and authors of reviews, meta-analyses, editorials, and letters are also associated with conclusions favourable to the sponsor.

Another possible mechanism is that the more favourable trial results are caused by differences in design characteristics such as patient population, comparators, and outcomes. The term “bias by design” describes trials that are deliberately designed to have a higher chance of success by using an inferior dose of the comparator treatment or by coding outcomes in a way that favours the company’s drug.

More studies – and more transparency – are needed, say editorial authors Andreas Lundh from the University of Southern Denmark and Lisa Bero from the University of Sydney:

They urge trial authors to share their data and participate in industry funded trials only if data are made publicly available – and suggest journals could help by rejecting research by authors who are unwilling to share their data and by penalizing authors who fail to disclose financial ties. The role of sponsors, or companies with which authors have ties, in the research must also be transparent.

In the meantime, trials with industry funding or authors with financial ties “should be interpreted with caution until all relevant information is fully disclosed and easily accessible,” they conclude.

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