Blackmores-sponsored research post polarises scientific opinion

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

Sydney University will be home to the new seat
Sydney University will be home to the new seat

Related tags Complementary medicines Medicine

The decision by Blackmores, the well-known Australian supplements company, to fund alternative medicine research at Sydney Univeristy has sparked a debate into whether universities should accept money from corporations to fund research.

The Blackmores Institute donated A$1.3m (US$1m) to finance a chair in integrative medicine at the university, a move Complementary Medicines Australia (CMA), the industry body, has applauded for “donating funds towards the education of student doctors about complementary medicines and how they interact with conventional treatments​.”

Carl Gibson, chief executive of CMA, said: “With around 70% of the Australian population using complementary medicines, it is crucial that doctors and other primary healthcare professionals are able to discuss the use of these medicines with their patients​. 

Complementary medicines are used as part of a preventive health regime or in conjunction with conventional treatments, and this needs to be acknowledged and incorporated into medical training​.” 

Over the next five years the chair will also undertake research into the impact of complementary medicines in health outcomes, including how complementary and alternative medicines interact with the current standard treatments prescribed by medical professionals.

The Chair will undertake high quality basic and clinical research into complementary and integrative medicines, and look to 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​,” said the Dean of Sydney Medical School, Professor Bruce Robinson.

The appointment has been criticised, however, for the presumed scientific integrity of its backer.

The problem here comes because the announcements from a prestigious university with a very good reputation for good science says that this initiative is to honour Marcus Blackmore, the founder of the Blackmores company​,” Professor John Dwyer, of the Australian Healthcare Reform Alliance, told ABC Radio.

And the point is that most of us would say that Blackmores doesn't deserve to be honoured by a prestigious university given the fact that their own track record in terms of the evidence base that they use to promote their products has had them reprimanded on many occasions over the last couple of years by authorities because of the inaccuracies of the claims or the exaggeration of their claims​.”

In terms of methodology and ethics of research, Adjunct Associate Professor Ken Harvey, School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at Monash University, wrote that most potential problems could be minimised by clear agreement that the university will be in complete control of research questions, methodology, ethics approval and publication rights.

The best way for a company to sponsor high-quality research into complementary medicine without any possible conflict of interest is for them to provide a hands-off, anonymous donation to the National Health and Medical Research Council that would add to the existing (small) pool of money provided for competitive, peer-reviewed research grants in this area​,” Harvey recommended.

However, the head of CMA said the complementary medicines industry was dependent of research to “support quality, safety, efficacy, and cost-effectiveness​”.

The goals of this initiative, including assisting doctors in making informed decisions about complementary medicines, are perfectly aligned with the intentions of the WHO’s traditional medicine strategy 2014-2023 to harness the potential that complementary medicines can make to health and wellness and to the appropriate integration of complementary medicines into the health care system​,” said Gibson. 

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