University of Wisconsin Group Ends Drug Firm Funds

UW Group Ends Drug Firm Funds [Milwaukee Journal Sentinel]

From Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (WI) (April 21, 2011)

MILWAUKEE, April 21, 2011 -- A University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health organization that has been criticized for its advocacy of controversial uses of narcotic painkillers says it has decided to stop taking money from the drug industry.

UW made the announcement after an April 3 investigative report in the Journal Sentinel revealed that its UW Pain & Policy Studies Group had taken about $2.5 million over a decade from companies that make opioids. The money came while the group pushed for what critics say was a pharmaceutical industry agenda not supported by rigorous science: the liberalized use of narcotic painkillers for non-cancer chronic pain.

While the expanded use of the medications boosted drug company sales, it also has been linked to a burgeoning epidemic of opioid painkiller abuse.

Just this week, federal officials announced a plan to curtail the epidemic, including efforts to reduce misprescribing and misuse of the drugs.

In concert with the White House, the Food and Drug Administration announced a new risk reduction plan for extended-release opioids, such as OxyContin, which often are misprescribed, misused and abused. The plan will focus on educating doctors about proper pain management and patient selection and improving patient awareness about how to use the drugs safely.

By far the biggest chunk of money the UW Pain Group got was from Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin. In 2007 the company was accused by the U.S. Department of Justice of fraudulently misleading doctors by claiming, with no proof, that the drug was less addictive, less likely to cause withdrawal and less subject to abuse than other pain medications.

The company and three of its executives pleaded guilty to various charges. Court-imposed fines and restitution payments totaled $635 million.

Between 1999 and 2010, Purdue paid the UW Pain Group about $1.6 million, according to university records obtained by the Journal Sentinel through an open records request.

The UW Pain Group may have helped pave the way for OxyContin's widespread use.

On several occasions, the newspaper found that research papers and medical articles written by UW Pain Group officials often did not disclose the group's funding from drug companies or that those individuals were paid personally by drug companies.

Emails to chancellor

In response to the news report, members of organizations concerned about opioid abuse sent emails to UW Chancellor Biddy Martin complaining about the UW Pain Group.

One of the emails came from Ada Giudice-Tompson, a woman in Ontario whose 29-year-old son died in 2004 of an opioid overdose. Giudice-Tompson also is vice president of Advocates for the Reform of Prescription Opioids.

She said her son, who had been treated for kidney stones, was prescribed 13,000 pills over 15 months.

"The most difficult part is knowing how Universities such as yours have terribly misdirected the medical profession," she wrote to Martin. "The medical community has received biased and manipulated data supporting the liberal use of prescription opioids. What's even worse is the motive behind the pushing of narcotics -- 'profit and greed.' This was no honest mistake.

"Chancellor Martin, I ask you to look into your heart and soul and help stop the epidemic of death and addiction caused by prescribed opioids."

In response to Giudice-Tompson's email and others, the UW Pain Group issued a written statement Wednesday saying that it promotes the idea of balance, that opioids must be available to those who need them and that misuse, abuse and diversion must be controlled.

Separately, on April 5, two days after the story ran, a doctor who heads another group that is trying to curtail inappropriate use of opioids emailed the World Health Organization, asking it to end its relationship with the UW Pain Group.

"Many public health experts believe that aggressive promotion of opioids for chronic non-cancer pain and deregulation of physician prescribing are the main causes of this public health disaster," Andrew Kolodny, a New York psychiatrist and president of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, said in his email to WHO. "The Wisconsin group has played a prominent role in this effort on behalf of pharmaceutical companies."

On April 11, Cecilia Sepulveda, a doctor with WHO in Geneva, Switzerland, replied, saying WHO was looking into the matter.

Sepulveda and other WHO officials could not be reached for comment.

Last week, UW issued a statement on behalf of Robert Golden, dean of the medical school, saying the money the UW Pain Group got from drug companies came as unrestricted gifts that conformed to university regulations and standards.

Golden's statement said that in September 2010, the UW Pain Group successfully reapplied to be a WHO collaborating center so that it could continue to address the lack of access to opioids for pain relief around the world.

"(The UW Pain Group) decided to meet the WHO's new conflict of interest standards and to no longer accept funding from industry involved in the sale and marketing of opioids," Golden wrote. "This decision was made prior to the recent newspaper story, which described past support but failed to mention the decision to no longer accept industry support."

Drug industry records

In January, the Journal Sentinel first requested records of drug industry funding of the UW Pain Group. Since then, the paper made several requests to interview officials with the group about its funding, including questions that also were sent to public affairs personnel with the medical school.

At no time did the university say that the UW Pain Group had decided to stop taking money from companies that make narcotic painkillers.

Lisa Brunette, a UW spokeswoman, said the issue of the UW Pain Group halting its drug industry funding was not divulged before the Journal Sentinel story was published because the paper never asked about it.

Asked Wednesday whether the UW Pain Group had stopped taking any funds from companies that make or market opioids as of September 2010, the UW Pain Group said it certified to WHO "that it would not accept funds from companies that have a commercial interest in opioids."

But, it added, "any existing contracts between (the UW Pain Group) and those companies ended when those contracts expired and any new funding from those companies will not be accepted."

The UW Pain Group also said it could not say whether its staff members or officials personally had stopped taking funds from companies that make narcotic painkillers because the deadline for them to file personal disclosure forms with the university is April 30.

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Posted: April 2011


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