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CMAJ. Aug 14, 2007; 177(4): 375–376.
PMCID: PMC1942106

Canada's approach to conflict-of-interest oversight

In his CMAJ news piece on the proposed US Food and Drug Administration conflict-of-interest rules that would limit the ability of experts with financial interests in the pharmaceutical industry to sit on the agency's advisory committees, Wayne Kondro highlighted the lack of similar rules in Canada.1 However, recent policy trends indicate that Canada is taking a more restrictive approach by banning experts with nonfinancial conflicts of interest from similar advisory and oversight committees. For example, Canada's Assisted Human Reproduction Act precludes people licensed to conduct human embryonic stem cell research, or potential licensees, from serving on the Board of Directors of the Assisted Human Reproduction Agency. This rule was severely criticized following the exclusion of stem cell scientists and fertility experts from the agency's recently constituted board.2 Likewise, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research exclude researchers affiliated with Canada's Stem Cell Network from membership in the Stem Cell Oversight Committee, the national stem cell research ethics board.

This move toward a more restrictive regulatory regime is different from the approach used in other jurisdictions. For example, in California, stem cell research oversight committees can include members with relevant expertise. Similarly, fertility clinicians and human embryonic stem cell research scientists are allowed to be members of the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Authority, the body responsible for overseeing embryo research in the United Kingdom. A recent study of UK fertility clinic patients found “overwhelming support for doctors to be the most important members of the Authority, followed by researchers working in the area.”3 Both jurisdictions manage conflicts of interest in advisory committees through strategies such as disclosure or divestment of conflicting interests and exclusion of experts from committee leadership roles.

It could be argued that the Canadian rules outlined above are specific to stem cell research and may very well be the result of Canadians' desire for strict regulation of emerging biotechnologies.4,5 However, conflicts of interest in stem cell research committees have not been shown to be qualitatively different from those in other scientific advisory and oversight contexts. Until there is such evidence to the contrary, the policy response to conflicts of interest should focus on addressing the need for specific expertise on these committees with effective management strategies, such as disclosure and divestment of financial interests.

Footnotes

Competing interests: None declared.

REFERENCES

1. Kondro W. US proposes more stringent conflict-of-interest rules. CMAJ 176(11):1571-2. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
2. Abraham C. Critics troubled by new fertility panel. Globe and Mail 2006 Dec 23; Sect A:1.
3. Callus T. Patient perceptions of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. Med Law Rev 2007;15(1):62-85. [PubMed]
4. Pollara Research and Earnscliffe Research and Communications. Public opinion research into biotechnology issues: executive summary, fifth wave. Ottawa: Canadian Biotechnology Secretariat; 2001. Available: www.biostrategy.gc.ca/CMFiles/5Wavexec-e49RWH-922004-8008.pdf (accessed 2007 Jun 29).
5. Pollara Research and Earnscliffe Research and Communications. Public opinion research into biotechnology issues: executive summary, sixth wave. Ottawa: Canadian Biotechnology Secretariat; 2002. Available: www.biostrategy.gc.ca/CMFiles/W6ExSum49RWZ-922004-6944.pdf (accessed 2007 Jun 29).

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