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Dr. David Healy

Prozac criticized, job offer withdrawn
By Anne McIlroy, Scripps Howard News Service

TORONTO - A world-renowned scientist saw a job offer at the University of Toronto evaporate after he warned that the popular antidepressant Prozac may trigger suicide in some patients.

The drug's manufacturer, Eli Lilly, is an important private donor to a mental-health research institute affiliated with the university. Critics say it appears that David Healy's job offer was rescinded to avoid offending the corporate giant or for fear of compromising future fundraising efforts. Eli Lilly said it had no role in the matter. The university said the decision not to hire Healy was made by the center for Addiction and Mental Health, an affiliated teaching hospital, and that it would not be proper for the university to question it. The center for Addiction and Mental Health, for its part, steadfastly denies that it has allowed fundraising concerns to interfere with academic freedom.

``If you are asking me if his comments influenced our decision, let me be clear that there were a number of factors involved. We regret that our actions have been misinterpreted as an attack against academic freedom and as a conflict of interest,'' said Paul Garfinkel, chief executive officer. ``Let me be clear, we've never made an offer or withdrawn an offer on the basis of an impact on an outside donor.''

When initially approached by The Globe and Mail several months ago, Healy, who works at the University of Wales, was reluctant to speak publicly about what happened. He said he decided to do so to publicize his concerns about Prozac and to raise questions about the appearance of a conflict of interest at University of Toronto. ``I've had people call from a number of countries asking whether it is safe to say something (critical) about pharmaceutical companies. The public needs to know what happened here,'' he said in an interview. Healy said that he made his views clear in private interviews with university officials before the speech.

University of Toronto colleagues are providing a public platform for him to express his views on Prozac next week. Toronto has been courting Healy since July of 1999. They made him a formal written offer of a combined faculty and clinical position in May of 2000, followed by a more detailed letter in August. They hired a lawyer to help him immigrate. Then, on Nov. 30, 2000, Healy gave a wide-ranging lecture in Toronto in which he criticized pharmaceutical companies for avoiding experiments that could demonstrate problems with their drugs, and for not publishing unfavorable results. He said the data show that Prozac and other popular antidepressants in the same chemical family may have been responsible for one suicide for every day they have been on the market.

A week later, Dr. David Goldbloom, physician-in-chief at the university's mental health unit, rescinded the offer to Healy in an e-mail, a copy of which was sent to The Globe and Mail in an unmarked brown envelope. Goldbloom told Healy his lecture was evidence that his approach was not ``compatible'' with development goals. Development, in the university context, is widely understood to mean fundraising. Eli Lilly, the drug company that manufactures Prozac, is its ``lead'' donor according to the mental health unit's Web site, contributing more than $1-million to the center's $10-million capital-fundraising campaign.

Copyright 2001 Doctors for Research Integrity.