(Rachel Orr/The Washington Post)

A new partnership between Johns Hopkins University and biotech company MedImmune to train scientists is raising pointed questions from critics about potential conflicts of interest.

Johns Hopkins and MedImmune say the joint program is the first of its kind in the United States, a unique and innovative effort to prepare graduate students for the biomedical workforce. But some critics worry the program, though small, could erode academic independence.

"The mission and culture of these two institutions are vastly different, one is academic, with emphasis on scholarship and teaching; the other is business, with emphasis on production and marketing. Such differences could easily yield unanticipated conflicts," Jerome Kassirer, a former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine wrote in an email. "Moreover, given that the University has prided itself on its scholarly output, the narrow output of candidates for pharmaceutical positions might move it toward status as a trade school, thus injuring its exalted reputation."

Industry has long partnered with academia in various ways, most notably by providing funding to support research. The new partnership takes that kind of collaboration to a new level: Johns Hopkins-MedImmune Scholars will have two research mentors -- one at the company, the Gaithersburg research arm of pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, and one at Johns Hopkins. Their thesis projects will be performed jointly between Johns Hopkins and MedImmune laboratories, and on top of the traditional academic curriculum, there will be courses co-taught by company scientists. The program is being jointly funded and designed by MedImmune and Johns Hopkins, but both institutions refused to disclose the details of the financial relationship.

The program will kick off this year, when graduate students in the university's school of medicine and engineering will be chosen for the first class of scholars -- five slots in the spring of 2017.

"The idea was to really try to do things a little bit differently and offer for the scientists multiple possibilities, because we’re all scientists -- we all went through PhD programs and others, and I can tell you from my own experience -- you go through all the 24th grade or even beyond, and you really don’t know the possibilities you have," Bahija Jallal, an executive vice president at MedImmune said. "We can open up the minds of these students and show that there are multiple worlds and multiple possibilities."

But outside researchers raised a range of concerns about the relationship. Eric Campbell, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, said that the two institutions have fundamentally different norms. Industry does not always publish its results, which may be considered trade secrets, while in academia, publishing is the coin of the realm and key to scientists' careers outside of industry. The pharmaceutical industry has also historically shown a bias for publishing results that are commercially favorable to their products, he noted.

"Whether students will develop those practices as a result of being involved, and how that will translate -- that is concerning," Campbell said.

Peter Espenshade, associate dean for graduate biomedical education at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine said the program was "vetted quite thoroughly through the whole university system and people interested in conflict of interest."

For example, concerns that students might be prohibited from publishing were one of the first concerns discussed internally, Espenshade said. That's why the projects the students work on are going to be pitched at the beginning of the program; if the project directly involved intellectual property that MedImmune wanted to protect, students might not be able to publish.

"We see these more as blue-sky type projects that help scientists at MedImmune, who don't have as much time to spend in the research and development space," Espenshade said.

That commitment to openness was echoed by Jallal, of MedImmune.

"My scientists are expected to publish," Jallal said. Ownership of the intellectual property, she said, will be managed according to a research agreement that is in place.

The joint training model has already been pursued in Europe. And the National Institutes of Health has long offered a training program in the U.S. in which students do a three-month internship with industry.

"It's much more of a training component, not so much doing thesis work there," said Alison Gammie, the director of the division of training, workforce development and diversity at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. "Our program director for these training grants has said that’s often a concern that is raised, about issues of intellectual freedom and intellectual property, but ... that hasn’t really been an issue."

Kassirer, who has been a critic of academic and industry conflicts, doubts whether it is possible to anticipate all the ways in which an arrangement could create conflicts and guard against them.

"I imagine that this group is probably going to be dissuaded from doing anything that isn't relevant to MedImmune," Kassirer said in an interview. "I don't know that, but I assume that if the company is putting money into it, they want to get something out of it."

Campbell said there could be subtler results: his own research has shown industry funding is associated with increased secrecy among researchers that contrasts with the open exchange of information that is essential in education.

A pair of studies in the journal Academic Medicine suggested that withholding of data was a major problem in academic science, exacerbated by relationships with industry.

And he noted that even if efforts are made to guard against potential conflicts, the refusal to disclose the financial relationship between the two institutions is troubling. Because the scholars are still in training, the partnership could distort the university's academic mission and responsibility to its students.

"What does the student do who may feel undue pressure from a corporate adviser on his or her thesis, who's not even grounded in the traditions of an academic thesis?" Campbell said. "I would not support departments of basic science and graduate programs being branded by companies as theirs. I think it diminishes the level of independence, which is essential to good education and good research."

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