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UT Biomedical Research Turning More to Private Funds

The UT System announced a deal on Thursday accepting up to $2.4 million a year from the pharmaceutical company Sanofi to fund biomedical research. As government research money dwindles, private funds are playing a larger role, and that comes with worries.

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Clarification appended

The pharmaceutical company Sanofi will fund up to $2.4 million a year in biomedical research at the University of Texas System under a deal announced Thursday, the latest in a trend toward more research funding from private industry as government research money dwindles.

The university system and multinational company called the agreement a mutually beneficial way to advance new discoveries in biomedicine, and said specific research to be funded has not yet been identified.

The partnership will “bring together academics and industry to find novel early research proposals that we can fund that will bring innovation and new therapies to patients,” said Paul Chew, the pharmaceutical company’s chief medical officer.

But watchdogs say universities have to be vigilant to prevent conflicts of interest as such funding relationships become more common. Private funding for research at the UT System has grown nearly 30 percent in the last five years, administrators said.

“The kinds of questions that have to be asked, from a public perspective, are how broad is this agreement, and what kinds of things does it govern?” said Michael Santoro, professor of business ethics at Rutgers Business School. “What kinds of things is Sanofi getting for $2.4 million?”

There is widespread consensus that such partnerships are part of the new reality for medical research at public universities. As government research budgets get stingier, academics are turning to industry to make up the difference. At the same time, state and federal policies have pushed universities to do a better job translating basic science into real world applications.

The UT System has made a concerted effort to find private sector funding, convening an “academia-industry roundtable.” Patricia Hurn, the system’s vice chancellor for research and innovation, said partnering with Sanofi could help research done by UT professors become therapies for chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Institutions at the UT System have come under fire before for an allegedly excessive focus on commercially funded research. Faculty members at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston have accused Ronald DePinho, its president, of shifting the center’s focus away from basic research toward drug development, according to an April report from the American Association of University Professors.

“Some senior faculty members described the shift to commercialization away from basic research as ‘shocking’ and ‘obscene,’”  the report found.

Chew, of Sanofi, said public-private cooperation is necessary for his company, which has formed more than 50 partnerships with academic institutions and hospitals since 2010 because it simply cannot afford to do all its research and development in-house.

Experts say that’s part of a larger trend, as rapid advancements in science have led pharmaceutical companies to collaborate with academic researchers around the country.

But the funding arrangements also raise questions about the increasing role that profit motive plays in science, and whether it delegitimizes the results of academic studies.

"There is a real shortfall in federal funding for biomedical research, and the [National Institutes of Health] and others hope that some of that gap can be filled with industry money," Andrea Gore, a professor of pharmacy at the University of Texas at Austin, said in an email. "My first concern is that a company developing a drug has a vested interest in a positive outcome — i.e., developing and bringing a drug to market. There is a genuine possibility of a perceived or a real conflict of interest." (Gore said she did not know the specifics of the Sanofi partnership and was speaking broadly about the role of industry in research.)

Santoro said: “The issue that all of these kinds of deals raise, and there’s going to be more of them, is to make sure that we’re not taking away from basic research. That we’re not hampering our ability to produce big, scientific breakthroughs in order to fund a lab for a few years so that we can have one very specific application for a private company.”

At other academic institutions, some company-sponsored drug trials require nondisclosure agreements to allow the company time to file a patent. That’s prompted researchers in other states to raise concerns about academic freedom and restrictions on what researchers can and cannot say publicly.

Hurn said that, as part of its deal with the UT System, Sanofi would get first pass at the research it funded and that the UT System had strict policies to prevent conflicts of interest.

“They’re investing in a particular project, so yes, it would go forward, if it develops into something interesting, into options,” she said. “This particular project, which they’re funding and jointly developing — yes, it is very strongly a partnership.”

Still, some academics distrust the scientific validity of research funded by the private sector.

The likelihood of publishing a conclusion that was favorable to private industry was 3.6 times higher in research sponsored by the industry than in biomedical research sponsored by government and nonprofit groups, according to a 2003 analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

But the paucity of government funding has left academics scrounging for other financial support. Many scientists say that as federal programs like the National Institutes of Health face budget cuts, researchers must spend more time applying for grants — time they would prefer to have in the lab.

“The space for competition for federal or state or even private grants is intensely competitive, and more so now than it’s been in probably 30 or 40 years,” Hurn said.

Federal funds, historically the largest slice of the pie for university research, now pay for less than half of research expenditures at the UT System, administrators said.

Overall state spending on higher education, including research, has also fallen. Between 2002 and 2010, state funding per enrolled student fell 12 percent, to $7,234, according to the National Science Foundation.

As public universities become more reliant on private-sector money, observers say there will be more scrutiny on universities to strike that balance.

“It’s really important that the people doing this for UT are really good negotiators, that they get the best deal for the university and that they also get the best deal from the public’s point of view,” Santoro said. “In the era of the corporatization of the university, that’s a very difficult outcome to get to.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect University of Texas System Vice Chancellor Patricia Hurn's comments that the UT System has policies to prevent conflicts of interest.

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