Toronto doctor recognized for her courage

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A Toronto doctor who defied a drug company by warning patients of potential dangers of a drug she was studying is being recognized for her courage.

Dr. Nancy Olivieri is the 2009 recipient of the “scientific freedom and responsibility award” from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the same organization that publishes Science magazine.

“She is being recognized for standing up for the principle that patient safety and the integrity of research comes before any loyalties to commercial or institutional interests,” AAAS spokesperson Deborah Runkle said Wednesday in a telephone interview from San Diego where the organization is holding its annual meeting at which the award is being presented.

“She exhibited an extraordinary degree of courage and responsibility to the ethics of science and to her patients,” Runkle added, noting that scientific integrity is paramount in biomedical research.

The controversy erupted in the mid-90s when Olivieri was conducting a clinical trial on deferiprone, a pill used to treat the rare blood disorder thalassemia, at the Hospital for Sick Children. She had discovered what she considered to be possibly life-threatening side effects.

Olivieri had signed an agreement with drugmaker Apotex to keep her research confidential. At the time, Apotex was negotiating a $30-million donation to the University of Toronto and its affiliated teaching hospitals, including the Hospital for Sick Children.

The dispute became public in 1998 when Olivieri expressed her concern in a medical journal. The hospital removed her as a director of one of its programs, publicly questioned her conduct and ordered that she and four researchers who defended her not speak publicly about what had happened.

The controversy grabbed headlines around the world and sparked debate over academic freedom and ethical dilemmas faced by university researchers who do clinical trials funded by drug companies.

When contacted Wednesday, Olivieri was reluctant to talk about the battle with Apotex, saying only that she is grateful for the honour.

The controversy resulted in lawsuits and countersuits. Olivieri was awarded an undisclosed settlement by the Hospital and university in 2002.

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