Cancer Study Funded by Cigarette Company A study on lung cancer says CT scans can dramatically reduce deaths by 80 percent. After the findings were published, a reporter discovered the controversial root of the funds, however.

Cancer Study Funded by Cigarette Company

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This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.


I'm Alex Chadwick. The New York Times reports today that a researcher from Weill Cornell Medical College accepted millions of dollars from a tobacco company to do a lung-cancer study. The tobacco company is Liggett Group and the study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, said that if more patients get CT scans, they can reduce death from lung-cancer by maybe 80 percent. Here to tell us more is New York Times reporter Gardiner Harris, who wrote the story. Gardiner, welcome to Day to Day, and walk us through what happened here please.

Mr. GARDINER HARRIS (Reporter, New York Times): Well, Alex, what happened was that back in 2000 one of the tobacco makers, Liggett Group, which makes Liggett Select, and Eve, and Pyramid cigarettes, decided that it wanted to do something good, I guess, and it announced that it would provide a grant to fund Dr. Henschke's work.

CHADWICK: This is Dr. Claudia Henschke. She headed this study for Weill Cornell Medical.

Mr. HARRIS: Right, and in 2000 Dr. Claudia Henschke, along with her colleague Dr. Yankelevitz, they had been working together for many years. They set up a foundation, apparently, to accept the money. Weill Cornell also got involved - the head of the medical school and a person on the board of overseers of the medical school also joined this charity. And this charity then became the funnel through which the Liggett money was used to fund research. Now, they wouldn't really tell us where the money went. Most of the money went to fund consultants, which is somewhat unusual, actually, in research. About 700,000 dollars went actually back to Weill Cornell.

But most important, I think that they then as they wrote their studies over the next bunch of years, including a landmark study in the New England Journal of Medicine, did not disclose in those studies that they had been underwritten in part by a cigarette maker. Had they disclosed that, they probably would not have been published in either the New England Journal of Medicine or in the Journal of the American Medical Association where they also had a study and some letters. So, it's a fairly big deal in lung cancer, if you take money from a cigarette company. People in lung cancer particularly are extremely sensitive about that, so you have to be very upfront about it.

CHADWICK: The tobacco companies used to sponsor a lot of medical research or what they said was medical research, that always reached inconclusive results about the health effects of tobacco. And I think that's why these medical groups and medical journals have said we are not going to publish material if it comes from the tobacco companies.

Mr. HARRIS: Right. The tobacco industry particularly, as you say, Alex, has a terrible history in medical research. They sponsored research basically to sort of cloud the waters on the dangers of cigarettes for decades, and they did this both directly funding studies, and they also had a history of setting up independent - founding foundations and funneling money through them to then sort of launder their money to then support research. And the reason this is all important is that there are - there's lot of evidence, there have been lots of studies that show that the source of funding for research can have substantial impacts on the outcome of the research. Which is why medical journals over the last ten to 15 years see disclosure of this source of research as so important because it tells something about the research.

CHADWICK: Well, I think there are two things there that I wonder about. One, it looks as though while Cornel Medical College did try to hide from the New England Journal of Medicine the source of the money, the tobacco source of the money for this study. And second, and perhaps more importantly, what can one conclude about the utility of these CT scans - that's computer tomography, in these sort of analysis of lung cancer?

Mr. HARRIS: On your first question Alex the university basically says they did disclose this because Vector, which is the parent company of Liggett Group, put out a press release saying they were going to give this money. But it is important to disclose where your funding comes in research, and you shouldn't have to require that readers have a computer nearby, and are able to do very sophisticated sort of Google searches to come up with the funding for your research. Which is why people believe that you need to be very straightforward, you know, from the get-go, and have those statements go along with your papers. Second, there is a huge controversy right now in the field of lung cancer about whether CT scans, CAT scans, or computer tomography scans can be helpful, and there is a very large trial that has been launched by the National Cancer Institute to study this very thing.

Now, a previous study, a very large study done to look at whether X-ray screens can be helpful to uncover lung cancers found that they weren't helpful. And there are a fair number of people in the world of cancer - in fact, the vast majority of cancer organizations feel that probably CT scans may not prove helpful either. They do recommend them, and you know, you can somewhat compare them with mammographies for breast cancer. But in the case of mammography, if you get a false positive - in other words, if you get a scan that suggests that there might be cancer in there. The tests that then follow up, the biopsies and the rest, are not particularly invasive, whereas if you get a false positive in a CT scan, and by the way, they are very common.

Then the procedures that then follow are extremely invasive. You have to, you know, put a needle all the way into a lung, which could collapse the lung. You might have to operate. There are all kinds of grave risks that can result from having a CT scan that sort of suggests a problem when there isn't actually a problem. So, we don't know at all at this point whether CT scanning on a widespread basis could be a good thing. And now that Dr. Henschke's work has been found to be funded by a cigarette maker, I think the calls for widespread CT scanning, and there are proposals in a variety of state legislators to setup trusts to pay for this or to require insurance companies to pay for this. My guess is that those efforts will lose some steam.

CHADWICK: New York Times reporter Gardiner Harris on the story today that a researcher from Weill Cornell Medical College took millions of dollars from the tobacco companies for a lung-cancer study. Gardiner, thank you.

Mr. HARRIS: Thanks for calling, Alex.

CHADWICK: And stay with us on Day to Day from NPR News.

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