Senator’s trips funded by drug companies
Prof John Crown acknowledged there was a “heavy” pharmaceutical industry presence at the meetings but said it was the only way he could go. Photograph: Bryan O'Brien
Four pharmaceutical multinationals paid for Independent Senator and oncologist John Crown to attend international cancer conferences last year, according to the latest register of members’ interests for the Seanad.
Roche Pharmaceuticals paid Prof Crown’s travel, hotel and conference fees at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium, while its subsidiary Genentech paid for attendance at the European Breast Cancer Conference in Vienna.
He also declared attendance at the European Society of Medical Oncology meeting in Vienna courtesy of Novartis, while Pfizer paid for him to go to the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago.
Prof Crown said attendance at the conferences was vital to his work as a cancer specialist, as they provided a forum to make presentations, meet peers and plan research.
‘Culture’ of profession
He said he had been attending roughly the same four international conferences for the past 12 years and added that it was the “culture” in his profession for drug companies to pay for senior figures to attend. In 2011, his travel was paid for by Pfizer, Bristol Myers Squibb, Novartis and Roche.
Prof Crown, who donates his Seanad salary to a medical research charity, acknowledged there was a “heavy” pharmaceutical industry presence at the meetings but said it was the only way he could go.
“If The Irish Times wants to cover the cost and have me write an article about it I’d be happy to take you up on the offer,” he said.
Last year, Prof Crown co-sponsored the Access to Cancer Treatment Bill, which would have required the Health Service Executive to ensure the supply to all cancer patients of all prescribed cancer drugs approved by the European Medicines Agency.
The Government blocked the Bill, with Minister of State Kathleen Lynch arguing in the Dáil that it prioritised cancer treatment over other “drugs, interventions and services”.
Prof Crown said the point of the Bill was to enforce political accountability by ensuring the Minister for Health had to sign off on decisions about the approval of new cancer drugs.
He was also prominent in lobbying last year for the approval of Ipilimumab (“Ipi”), a melanoma drug manufactured by Bristol Myers Squibb. The State body responsible for judging the cost-effectiveness of new drugs, the National Centre for Pharmacoeconomics, ruled against approving Ipi, which costs ¤85,000 per patient, but the Department of Health overruled it.
Prof Crown said the economics-driven approach failed to appreciate the subtleties of modern cancer drugs. While Ipi delivers a median increase in survival of 3.7 months, up to 10 per of those treated may be cured.
He pointed out that he has previously accused drug companies of predatory pricing and has called for a ceiling on the cost of all oncology drugs as well as the mandatory use of cheaper generics and biosimilar drugs. He has also opposed the approval of cancer drugs which were not cost effective. Greater access to new treatments for cancer had greatly improved survival rates, he said.