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Smoking, and ire, at UCLA

A study of nicotine addiction is funded by a tobacco company.

February 09, 2008|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

Here's a recipe for academic controversy:

First, find dozens of hard-core teenage smokers as young as 14 and study their brains with high-tech scans. Second, feed vervet monkeys liquid nicotine and then kill at least six of them to examine their brains. Third, accept $6 million from tobacco giant Philip Morris to pay for it all. Fourth, cloak the project in unusual secrecy.

At UCLA, a team of researchers is following this formula to produce what it hopes will be a groundbreaking study of addiction. So far, the scientists have proved that the issues of animal testing and tobacco-funded research are among the most contentious on university campuses.

UCLA professor Edythe London, the lead scientist on the three-year study, said it could discover new ways to help people quit smoking and lead to innovative treatments for other addictions.

"We are doing this because we really want to save lives," she said. "I am really proud of what we are doing. We have a track record for contributing to science, and we would like to bring that to bear on the problem of nicotine addiction."

But even before she had a chance to select her first teenager for study, London paid a price for her research. In October, activists opposed to animal testing flooded her Westside home with her garden hose, causing more than $20,000 in damage. They struck again this week, leaving an incendiary device at night that charred her front door. A gardener discovered the damage Tuesday.

The activists, who have also targeted other UCLA researchers, accused London of using "sadistic procedures" and "torturing nonhuman animals to death" in earlier studies. No one has been arrested in the attacks.

At the same time, Philip Morris' role in the study has drawn sharp criticism from anti-tobacco activists. They doubt that the company wants to help people stop smoking and question whether the study of teenage and monkey brains could help Philip Morris design a more addictive cigarette.

"It's stunning in this day and age that a university would do secret research for the tobacco industry on the brains of children," said Matt Meyers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids in Washington, D.C. "It raises fundamental questions about the integrity, honesty and openness of research anywhere at the University of California."

London said that Philip Morris would not have any oversight or other involvement in the study. The suggestion that the company might use her findings to make cigarettes more addictive is "twisted," she said.

"That is not something we ever considered," she said. "The representatives of Philip Morris were very sincere."

Roberto Peccei, vice chancellor for research at UCLA, said the company's motives were immaterial.

"I have no idea why Philip Morris decides to fund this anti-smoking research, but they do," he said. "As long as we do not feel that we are interfered with and that the research is done with the highest intentions, what's in the mind of the funder is irrelevant."

But critics say the UCLA study allows Philip Morris to sponsor research on adolescents that would prompt an outcry if the company did this work in its own laboratories.

"Edythe is a very good researcher, and frankly I'm shocked she would take the money," said Michael Cummings, a senior researcher at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y. "I think she's naive."

Philip Morris, which is paying for 23 research projects at seven UC campuses, supports the UCLA study as part of the company's effort "to reduce youth tobacco use and increase scientific understanding in the field," said William Phelps, a Philip Morris spokesman.

He said the company has no intention of using the results or teenagers' brain scans to develop more addictive cigarettes. "We would never do that," he said.

Phelps declined to comment on the use of animals in the study.

Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), who backed efforts by an activist to obtain a copy of the grant proposal, said UC has no business accepting money from tobacco companies.

"It is absolutely outrageous to see this kind of funding and this type of research within the UC system," said Yee, a psychologist. "The fact that a piece of research is funded by the tobacco industry, and their singular issue is how to sell cigarettes, taints the results of whatever the findings might be."

At UCLA, as at other University of California campuses, faculty members are free to accept money from any source. The only restriction is that studies involving animal and human subjects be approved by university review committees to ensure that they meet standards for the treatment of their subjects, university officials said.

For more than a year, anti-tobacco scientists and activists have pushed UC to prohibit faculty from accepting money from tobacco companies for research on tobacco. The Board of Regents, citing academic freedom, agreed instead to establish a committee that will review tobacco company research proposals.

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