Vitamin and supplements company Blackmores is funding a “chair in integrative medicine” at Sydney University.
Apparently the University approached Blackmores about the relationship rather than the company making the first move.
The new position is titled the Maurice Blackmore Chair which, according to an announcement from the University made today, “honours Maurice Blackmore [founder of the company], a pioneer of Australian naturopathy”.
Maurice Blackmore was the father of the current chairman, Marcus Blackmore.
The company is funding the position with a $1.3 million donation which, according to Prof Bruce Robinson, Dean of Sydney Medical School, “Over the next five years … will undertake research into the impact of complementary medicines in health outcomes, including how complementary and alternative medicines interact with the current standard treatments by medical professionals.
“With this support, we will be able to develop data and guidelines for consumers and healthcare professionals based on solid evidence.”
Robinson added that, apart from the research, the Chair will “develop education programs which mean young doctors will graduate knowing what complementary medicines can and can’t achieve, and how they interact with other treatments”.
Marcus Blackmore said “Integrative medicine, with its focus on prevention and well-being, holds serious promise as a solution to the ever increasing cost of healthcare in our community.
“It is our hope that our support for this Chair will contribute towards a holistic approach in medical practice that combines modern western medicine with established and proven practices in the area of integrative medicine.”
The official announcement says that the University will be collaborating with “international partners in Canada, China and Asia [sic], and proposed schools in the USA and UK”. These partners are not named, though it is understood that the Canadian institution is the University of Toronto.
Concerns have already been expressed over the relationship.
Eran Segev, president of Australian Skeptics, pointed out that the official announcement makes no definition of what “integrative medicine” incorporates, nor any delineation between “complementary” and “alternative” medicine.
“Will the research be limited to the types of products that Blackmores promotes, or will it be much wider and include health regimens like yoga or massage, for instance?” he asked.
The announcement also makes reference to other work at the University, including high-definition imaging of the brain stem “to understand why acupuncture works”.
“Definitive statements like this are worrying,” Segev says. “Understanding ‘why’ acupuncture works makes no allowance for the important caveats of where and even whether acupuncture works at all.
“It is these sorts of poor definition and bland statements that indicate in-creeping support in the university environment for complementary and alternative treatments that, in many cases, do not have scientific support.”
The University’s announcement makes no reference to the independence of the research facility, or any ‘hands-off’ position for Blackmores.
Robinson did tell the ABC that “Blackmores has no role in the way the results of that research are communicated and they have no ability to limit [our disseminating] the results of that research.” But Blackmores Institute director Dr Lesley Braun will sit on the selection panel that chooses who fills the chair of integrative medicine.
Marcus Blackmore told the ABC that it was a mutually beneficial relationship and he had no intention of intervening in the university’s research.
“Will this give us some credibility? I’m sure it will,” he said. “But there’s no suggestion whatsoever that there’s any profit motive in this. In fact, it’s costing us a lot of money obviously.”
In actual fact, Blackmores’ “selling and marketing costs” for 2013-14 was $23.8m+. $1.3m over five years is equivalent to slightly over one per cent of that amount.
Marcus Blackmore’s stated hope that the activities of the Chair will bring a holistic approach to western medicine and “established and proven practices in the areas of integrative medicine” might be seen to suggest that the work will substantiate the company’s areas of activity.
Dr Ken Harvey, who resigned his position as Adjunct Associate Professor in LaTrobe University’s School of Public Health in response to a proposal by Swisse, another vitamin and supplement company, to sponsor research at that university, says there are potentially similar issues with the Blackmores/Sydney University relationship.
At La Trobe, Swisse was to contribute $15 million to the University over six years as a founding partner of a Complementary Medicine Evidence Centre (CMEC). Professor Keith Nugent, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research) for La Trobe, said in an announcement late in January 2014 that “once the CMEC is established, Swisse will continue to have its products undergo rigorous and independent, scientific assessment”.
“There are potential conflicts of interest when one company funds research,” says Harvey. “They may have expectations that this research will validate their own products, which it may not do; there may be subtle pressures on researchers not to be critical of products so as not to upset the funder; researchers may be tempted to game their research to produce results that please the funder. In addition, the company possibly uses the university association for marketing purposes and magnify and/or cherry-pick any positive results without waiting to see if these can be replicated.
“While all of these potential problems can be minimised by clear agreements that the university will be in complete control of the research questions, the methodology, ethics approval and publication rights, this is not always made clear. In short, the funding entity must accept they will be hands-off!”
Segev concluded: “With such research funded by the complementary health industry, it is a concern because of the obvious potential for a conflict of interest. Australian Skeptics supports scientific research into complementary medicine, but it has to be – and seen to be – independent of any influence by vested interests. I’m not saying that’s the case here, as we don’t know enough details yet, but this should be a first priority – it should be independent, it should continue to be independent, and it should be demonstrated that it is independent. Coming from one of the leading universities in Australia, we would hope that this would be the case.”