Research seeks to answer key questions

Opinion by Professor Keith Nugent

It’s a morning routine for thousands of Australians. Along with breakfast and a quickly-swilled tea or coffee, many of us are also downing a variety of pills that come under the broad banner of complementary medicines.

It could be Vitamin C, a multivitamin, fish oil or combination of any number of other things with all kinds of claimed benefits, but how do we know what impact they are having on our bodies, be they neutral, positive or negative? How do we know if they are having any interaction with other prescription medicines we may be taking? Are they producing anything other than expensive urine?

These are questions that consumers need answered. After all, Australians are spending in the order of $1.2 billion dollar each year on these products.

The Australian Medical Association says on its 2012 Position Statement on complementary medicine:

‘There is a substantial gap between the use of complementary medicine and the evidence to support that use.’

And

‘Evidence-based scientific research in the form of randomised trials is required to validate complementary medicines and therapies of efficacy, safety, quality and cost effectiveness so that practitioners and consumers can evaluate the potential benefits and any adverse effects.’

This issue of independent research has been raised in The Age newspaper as a result of our discussions with Australia’s largest complementary medicines company Swisse to conduct new research into the efficacy, if any, of complementary medicine.   

These issues are not new to the university sector. Many institutions around the world have significant relationships with large multinational pharmaceutical companies. What is new however is that these relationships are not in place with the growing complementary medicine sector.

It is because the community needs and deserves answers to these questions that La Trobe University wants to create an independent centre for research into complementary medicines. 

Why La Trobe? One of our key research strengths is around biochemistry and we already conduct trials in diet and the impact on human health. So the question really is: why wouldn’t we?

But how do we do this in a way that people can trust and rely upon? This is a legitimate issue facing all universities on a regular basis who have partnerships with any number of commercial and government partners with vested interests and agendas. 

There are critics that say universities should not work with these partners, as that can only compromise the results. We understand that concern and recognise universities must put safeguards in place to deal with these issues, but we don’t think scientists should be living in ivory towers at arms length from communities. After all, isn’t that our job – to question accepted thinking, to make new discoveries and share them to maximum reach and impact? 

If any research in this area is to be useful and credible, it must come from independent, trusted sources and be based on scientific fact. A research centre of this nature must have multiple funding sources and publish research results in quality peer-reviewed journals without fear or favour, regardless of what is found – good or bad. 

Similarly commercial partners must not have any say in the design, operation or outcome of this research. This is a matter for the scientists.

This is the approach we will take at La Trobe University. 

Yes, the public have a right to ask questions. They also have a right to some facts. 

Only then will Australians be empowered to know that what they are taking on a regular basis is having the claimed impact – or not.

Professor Keith Nugent is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) at La Trobe University.

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