Sci. Aging Knowl. Environ., 17 July 2002
[DOI: 10.1126/sageke.2002.28.ns6]

July 17, 2002

Wearing Two Hats
Ties between industry and academia create conflicts while they expand opportunities

R. John Davenport

Document URL:;2002/28/ns6/DC1

The number of companies focused on aging is rising (see main story), but most researchers aren't vacating ivory towers for oaken boardrooms. Instead, they're reaping the benefits of both academia and industry. "Many if not most senior aging researchers are on a scientific advisory board or consult on occasion for a company," says Judith Campisi, a molecular biologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California. But she estimates that the number of researchers who are starting their own companies is quite small.

Scientists with company connections, however, must juggle the opposing interests of academia and industry. Most universities limit faculty members to 1 day per week of consulting and preclude researchers from drawing salaries from corporate ventures. But researchers take advantage of their industry ties in other ways. University of California, Berkeley, biochemist Bruce Ames is putting all the stock he receives from Juvenon, a nutritional supplement company that he created, into a foundation that has, among other things, funded a new nutrition research center at the Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute. "There are ways of spending money usefully for science," says Ames. Siegfried Hekimi of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, finances his academic research in part through contracts with the company he started. Chronogen's birth came at the same time that one of Hekimi's government grants was running out. Funds from Chronogen picked up the slack; the company doesn't have its own lab space, and all the research for Chronogen, which licenses patents on Hekimi's research from McGill, has been done under contract in Hekimi's lab.

Such situations raise the issue of how faculty members keep academic and company roles separate. Hekimi says that his circumstances make it easy: "I really have no problem now because the business of the company has been to do research." Universities also enact rules to minimize conflicts. Although industry research often goes unpublished to guard trade secrets, Hekimi says, "we are an academic lab. At McGill, you cannot do secret research, which means of course we have to publish our data," a stipulation of the patent licensing agreement. McGill and Chronogen are patenting Hekimi's work, "but the level of demonstration that you need for a patent is a lot lower than the degree you need for publication, and so we've not had a delay in publication patterns." Patent applications can impede other ways of sharing scientific information, however: Hekimi's students have occasionally had to withdraw posters from meetings because they contained preliminary data that weren't yet patented.

Other university regulations come into play. "I couldn't own stock in Geron and have a sponsored research project [with Geron] in my lab," says Campisi. "I'm not happy to abide by a lot of rules, but I'm glad these rules exist," because they provide safeguards against unethical behavior and prevent companies from encroaching on the academic ideal of pursuing intellectually motivated goals. And although researchers might be tempted to steer their academic work toward their companies' interests, many scientists say that this potential conflict is easy to navigate. "The activities are naturally divided," says Leonard Guarente, a molecular geneticist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a co-founder of Elixir Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "[Elixir and Guarente's MIT lab] deal with fundamentally different steps in the process of going from basic knowledge to final product."

Despite efforts by scientists and universities to separate public and private efforts, many researchers worry that colleagues with ties to companies don't make their connections clear. Campisi says that she's been asked by journalists about other researchers' presentations and realized that the reporter had no idea that the scientist delivering the talk also ran a company: "That's not being truthful in advertising." She sees no need to prevent university researchers from starting companies, but "there has to be full disclosure," she says. When analyzing data from scientists with company ties, says gerontologist Richard Miller of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, "you have to get in the habit of recognizing the potential for favoritism of specific sets of hypotheses and balance that into the equation." But, he adds, that's no different from judging the work of any scientist with grant renewals, tenure, or media attention riding on the outcome of research.

With gero-tech still in its infancy, researchers agree that predicting the impact of companies on academia is difficult. A constructive relationship between the two--one focused on basic research, the other on transforming the fruits of such labors into therapies--might mean that researchers will find ways to stall human aging rather than just watch it happen.

Science of Aging Knowledge Environment. ISSN 1539-6150