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Johns Hopkins scales down its deal with cosmetics firm after criticism

BMJ 2006; 332 doi: (Published 20 April 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;332:929
  1. David Brown
  1. Baltimore

    The value of the name of Johns Hopkins, the 19th century Quaker philanthropist who endowed one of the great medical institutions of the United States, is at the centre of a public debate that is forcing US academic medicine to think hard about what happens when science meets branding.

    In late February a New York cosmetics company, Klinger Advanced Aesthetics, announced the release of a line of products called “Cosmedicine.” The 15 skin products, whose prices range from $28 (£16; €23) to $85, included hydrators, exfoliators, pore shrinkers, sun blockers, and shine suppressors.

    The marketing pitch of the new products was that their biological performance was scientifically verified, unlike that of nearly all their competitors. The data appearing on Cosmedicine labels attesting to skin change after application of the creams and “serums” aren't the opinion of users; instead they are the results of tests performed by contract laboratories and overseen by scientists at Johns Hopkins Medicine, the collective name for the medical school, hospital, and health system at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

    Klinger's chairman, Richard Rakowski, viewed the arrangement with Hopkins as a long overdue injection of truth telling in his industry. In recent years the US Food and Drug Administration established protocols for testing manufacturers' claims concerning the sun protection factor in sunscreen lotions. Mr Rakowski said that his company's “intention was to apply the same approach, which is objective standards and measurements based on science, to all the other skin claims. That is an incredibly lofty public interest goal.”

    Johns Hopkins helped design the tests and analyse the results, although it seems it didn't supervise the gathering of data or verify their accuracy. It got consulting fees and was also scheduled to gain an equity interest in Klinger and a seat on the company's board of directors.

    Early this month William Brody, president of the Johns Hopkins University (and also a doctor) was in New York. Walking along Fifth Avenue he passed Sephora, a cosmetics retailer whose stores are one of two outlets for Cosmedicine products. In the window was a display with the words “Johns Hopkins Medicine” and a statement describing how Dr Brody's institution had “consulted on the design and data analysis of clinical studies” for the products.

    “I was stunned,” said Dr Brody, who knew of the arrangement, although not all the details. “I think there was more language being allowed by someone at Hopkins than was ever intended by [the] university administration—certainly bigger language.”

    Within a day or two the Wall Street Journal reported the Klinger-Hopkins deal. Within a week the university decided to forgo the equity position and board seat, which Dr Brody saw as a potential conflict of interest for his institution.

    “Let's say an individual [at the university] wants to blow the whistle and say this skin cream is causing some particular problem,” Dr Brody speculated. “Conceivably the dean could say, ‘I'm not going to allow you to publish that information.’ It's a little bit far fetched, but conceivably the university could have something to gain by suppressing information.”

    As part of the revised arrangement Klinger will also change its references to Johns Hopkins Medicine, although exactly how hasn't been announced.

    All parties are quick to say that at no time did Johns Hopkins endorse Cosmedicine; nor did Klinger assert that it did. The actual product packaging mentioned only “a major medical institution” and had no reference to Johns Hopkins. Few people doubt, however, that the Hopkins name was the chief attraction.

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