Interesting Conflicts

MEDICAL SCHOOL

REPORTS last week that a fellow at a Harvard-affiliated hospital allegedly violated federal drug regulations, securities law and University conflict-of-interest policies were shocking, to say the least.

The allegations, first published by the Boston Globe, assert that Scheffer C. G. Tseng, an ophthalmology fellow at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, illegally administered a Vitamin A-based drug for dry eye to almost 300 patients. Worst of all, Tseng held a large financial stake--valued at $3.4 million--in the company which produces the drug, wrote misleading reports magnifying the treatment's effectiveness, and failed to inform patients about the drug.

Tseng broke Harvard's conflict-of-interest policies by exaggerating his research results to boost the value of his stock in the drug's manufacturer. "A significant conflict of interest had occurred," said Medical School Dean Daniel C. Tosteson. Tseng's research "was run without sufficient safeguards to protect against potential bias," he said. Tseng's supervisor, Associate Professor of Medicine Kenneth R. Kenyon, held $340,000 in the company's stock.

THIS affair brings up a number of troubling and unanswered questions. First, how will Kenyon and Tseng, who now works at the University of Miami, be punished? Second, what investigative and disciplinary procedures exist to handle this and similar cases and do they rely solely on in-house review? The Medical School seems to have botched its own internal investigation, which has been kept secret. Tosteson's only answer to the whole crisis has been reissuing the school's conflict of interest policy. It's time that the Medical School turn to outside peer groups for review of its professors' ethics, not in-house groups whose motivation might be suppressing embarrassment.

What is particularly disheartening is that this story comes only a few weeks after the Medical School's announcement of its venture capital firm to help attract commercial funds for professors' research. At the time, Medical School officials went to great lengths to assure the University it could prevent professors' financial interests from influencing their research.

How can we believe these assurances after the Medical School missed such an enormous conflict of interest--involving two faculty members and several millions of dollars? This has been the third research fraud case to come to light in the last eight years. And why must we depend on news reports and not the Medical School to learn when violations have been discovered?

At this point, fears that gross financial interests may be distorting Harvard's pursuit of knowledge appear to be turning into a reality. If Harvard, which some believe to be the world's finest university, cannot protect the purity of its academic mission, who will? Unless the University can present convincing evidence that such incidents will not occur again, it is time that Harvard withdraw its individual and institutional relationships with industry.