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Medical Research Council unit takes tobacco cash

BMJ 1996; 313 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.313.7057.577 (Published 07 September 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;313:577

The Medical Research Council's neurochemical pathology unit in Newcastle upon Tyne has accepted a donation of £147 000 ($220 000) from British American Tobacco. The money will cover much of the cost of a three year research project on the effects of nicotine on the aging brain. The project ran into financial difficulties when the United States venture capital firm that was intended as the original source of funds pulled out at short notice.

The director of the unit, Professor Jim Edwardson, said that the source of the money would not affect the outcome of the research, and a gagging clause would prevent the tobacco firm from drawing attention to the results. “I would rather not take money from the tobacco industry, but the alternative was making researchers redundant. After all, most of our funding is public money, which includes £9bn of revenue from tobacco taxation each year.”

The money is being used to compare the brains of smokers and non-smokers, after several epidemiological studies suggesting that smokers have a lower incidence of Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's dementia. According to Professor Edwardson, there are good reasons to believe that this is more than a healthy survivor effect: “Nicotine has protective effects in animal models of Parkinson's disease, and there are high concentrations of nicotinic receptors in the entorhinal cortex which is involved in memory.”

Ms Jane Lee, the MRC's director of corporate affairs, said that the decision to accept the money had been a local one but was in line with MRC policy, which encourages institutions to seek funding from other sources whenever possible. “It is simply impracticable to have a blacklist of companies from which we will not accept research funding.” Nor was she concerned that a positive result might provide succour to the tobacco industry. “We would be worried if there were certain types of research that you would not embark on because of the answer you might get. It is up to society to use the results responsibly.”

Other research funding bodies might not agree. Next month the council of the Cancer Research Campaign will vote on whether to cut annual spending of more than £2.5m at Cambridge University, after the university's decision to accept £1.5m from British American Tobacco. The director general of the Cancer Research Campaign, Professor Gordon McVie, said: “Cambridge does some of the highest class of research that we fund, but there is great strength of feeling in the medical research community on this issue, and we will have to consider whether funding should continue.”

The MRC's head of public communications, Ms Mary Rice, was sent home and asked not to return to work for a week after she criticised the grant. “I didn't think that it could be justified,” she said. “I thought it would be seriously damaging to the council's reputation as an impartial source of scientific knowledge.”

It was reported last week that academics examining the effects of nicotine on brain cells at the University of Bath have accepted a research grant of more than £100 000 from British American Tobacco, citing the lack of government funding as their main reason for doing so.—DOUGLAS CARNALL, BMJ

Figure1

Studies suggest that smokers have a lower incidence of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease than non-smokers

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