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A centre of controversy

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Researchers are expressing concern that the pharmaceutical sector is putting up much of the money—even providing the name—for the projected new Leslie L. Dan Pharmacy Building that will replace the historic Botany department greenhouses on Queen’s Park Crescent.

It is anticipated that almost half of the estimated $70-million cost of the building will be donated by the pharmaceutical sector, an industry that is increasingly held in low regard for its global control of life-saving drugs and its high-pricing policies.

Researchers say that as U of T becomes more dependent on fundraising campaigns to finance its projects, it needs to outline unwavering guidelines governing academic freedom.

“There are always strings attached to corporate sponsorship—there is no free lunch anywhere in the world,” says Paul Ranalli, co-chair of Doctors for Research Integrity and a lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine.

Senior officials at both the university and the Faculty of Pharmacy adamantly deny there will be any conflict of interest in the reliance on multinational pharmaceutical money.

Short-term pressures to produce hundreds of new pharmacists a year, in an era when drugs are increasingly the treatment of choice in serious illness, is supplanting the university’s greenhouses at the cost of losing century-old vegetation, some of it descended from prehistoric plants.

To date, a reported $15 million comes from corporate donors. That includes $5 million from Apotex Inc., $2 million from Shoppers Drug Mart and $8 million from the building’s namesake, Leslie L. Dan, the founder of Novopharm Ltd. and a board member of its Israeli parent company, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd.

He is also chairman of Viventia Biotech Inc., a research company based in Toronto that works with pharmaceutical companies and universities to develop cancer treatments.

The province has committed $28.8 million, and the university has contributed $7.2 million and hopes to raise another $18 million from private donors.

“I don’t have a problem with companies giving money to the university, as long as they behave responsibly,” said Ranalli.

“The question is whether or not the university is big enough to stand up to the donor.”

But Pharmacy faculty dean Wayne Hindmarsh says there will be no conflict of interest at all.
“The contracts will be written up very, very carefully so that we won’t find that we have to compromise any situations in the future.”

U of T’s administration echoed Hindmarsh’s remarks.

“A pharmaceutical company making a philanthropic donation to help us build this building gets absolutely nothing in return in terms of any rights to research, any influence on curriculum, any influence on student choices,” said Jon Dellandrea, the university’s Vice President and Chief Advancement Officer. “This sense that somehow the corporations are driving our agenda is nonsense.”

Indications that the number of pharmacists entering the workforce each year is not enough to fill vacancies in retail pharmacies or hospitals came in an Ipsos-Reid poll conducted last year for the Canadian Association of Chain Drug Stores.

The poll concludes that a global recruiting race “threatens to make the problem in Canada even more acute,” even though nine out of ten pharmacy grads want to remain in Canada.

Hindmarsh says that enrolment in Pharmacy will double to 240 students a year when construction, due to start next year, is completed in 2005.

He says the faculty accepts only 18 per cent of the students that apply.

But Pharmacy needs to convince more private donors that the market will absorb the increased number of graduates if it is to avoid going heavily into debt building on its prestigious Queen’s Park location.

Dellandrea is optimistic that Pharmacy will succeed in raising the remaining $18 million.

“The worst-case scenario is that the Faculty of Pharmacy has an $18-million mortgage that they have to pay out of the operating budget. But the best-case scenario, obviously, is that we generate the $18 million in private support to do it.”

Dellandrea acknowledges that the fundraising is clouded by debate over whether the pharmaceutical donors can call the tune in the university.

“There’s a lot of controversy swirling around,” says Dellandrea. But he argues that the corporate donations for the Dan building are purely a construction issue and have nothing to do with research.

“Our private funding activities are being driven entirely by academic priorities and the academic priorities are balanced across the university,” he said when asked whether the recent reliance on corporate donations means subjects of interest to big business are going to advance at the expense of subjects like botany and other basic arts and science programs.

“We have intervened with special matching programs in the humanities and the social sciences, recognizing that it historically has been more difficult to raise private resources there. Are there cases where there have been controversies and conflict?” he queried.

“Sure there have. But to go from that to characterizing some sweeping diabolical plot to intervene and steer research—it doesn’t work.”