Abbott Offers to Study Inuit Lung Disease for Free -- Locals Say No

Last Updated Dec 12, 2008 3:36 PM EST

2690712679_b124a73e0e.jpgAbbott Labs has learned that no good deed goes unpunished, particularly in the frozen north of Canada. The company offered to study a prevalent lung disease in babies in the Nunavut region, free of charge, but the local governmet has turned the company down, according to the Nunutsiaq News. (One might say the Nunavuts are having none of it.)

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) sends nearly a third of children under six months old to hospital in certain regions of Nunavut. Inuit children suffer the most lung disease in the region. (Never heard of it Nunavut? It's the gigantic polar region that stretches from Northern Canada up to the roof of the earth. The predominant demographic there is the Inuit.)

Quite why Nunavut's government doesn't want to be helped isn't clear. But there's a suggestion that officials there feel the research would come with some kind of conflict of interest:

While [government] officials would not comment on the issue, a Nov. 13 letter to [Dr. Anna Banerji, from the University of Toronto,] from Cindy Roache, chair of the [government's] health and social research review committee, says the committee's major concern is that the project is funded by Abbott Laboratories Ltd. "For reasons of potential conflict of interest, we have reservations about supporting research that is wholly funded by pharmaceutical companies," Roache wrote in the letter.
Abbott produces an immunization agent, palivizumab, under the brand name Synagis, which costs about $1,500 per single injection, administered monthly, often over six months. Reading between the lines, it seems that the Nunavut officials suspect Abbott's research will simply end up concluding that more of these injections will be needed.

A local institution, Qikiqtani General Hospital, will not provide access to the Banerji/Abbott team.

While research into RSV remains stymied, costs for the Nunavut people continue to mount: The average cost per child admitted to the Qikiqtani hospital was $12,029, according to a study done in 1999 to 2002. The average cost for a child admitted to CHEO [another institution] was $45,688. One reason: the kids need to be flown by helicopter.

You can hear the frustration in local officals' voices:

"Lung health is a big issue in Nunavut," Mary Ellen Thomas, the Nunavut Research Institute's senior officer, said. Given the capacity problems that Nunavut faces daily, she said, "whatever funding we can find to assist research is of interest to me ... I don't care where the funding comes from," Thomas added. "It's not even a question on our application forms." It's the quality of the research that matters.
Banerji said her group has always been upfront about the funding source for their research, but claimed that the study is totally controlled by the researchers themselves, and totally independent of Abbott.
The results will be published in a peer-reviewed medical journal, like results from previous, related work.
Photo of Nunavut by Flickr user Northern Xander, CC.