President William R. Brody

Johns Hopkins President William R. Brody (Sun photo by Kenneth K. Lam / June 25, 2001)

Second of three articles

Venture capitalist Steve Gorlin planted himself in a classroom at the Johns Hopkins University's medical school and listened for two days as, one after another, nearly a dozen top researchers pitched ideas and promoted discoveries. Gorlin quickly cut deals to launch two companies to exploit the most promising work.

The Florida investor routinely scouts academic labs, seeking new medical technology or products that could be turned into money. But Hopkins particularly impressed him. Its scientists were world class; its administrators could not have been more obliging. Eager to do business, they arranged those marathon meetings three years ago and a party months later at the president's mansion.

"I've done a lot of deals over the years," Gorlin said. At Hopkins, "it was total cooperation."

Not so long ago, Gorlin's experience would have been unthinkable at most medical research centers and especially at Hopkins, which had long been hostile to industry. But its culture is being transformed as it embraces business opportunities. Today, the nation's first university dedicated to pure research is fast becoming one of its most entrepreneurial schools.

Scientists at Hopkins serve as consultants and paid scientific advisers to corporations. The university filed more patent applications in 1999 than all but two other major research centers. It has helped launch 18 companies in recent years, and corporate-sponsored research at the medical school has nearly quadrupled in the past decade.

By commercializing its medical research, Hopkins hopes to tap new sources of revenue, advance the search for lifesaving treatments and promote economic development in Baltimore. If it hesitates, Hopkins could drift behind in the competition for research money and top-notch faculty and students.

"Ten or 15 years ago, a lot of what we're doing would have been heresy," says William P. Tew, head of business development at the medical school. "Now there is a greater understanding that business licensing and development are part of the university mission."

But this new mission carries risks: for the integrity of research, for the safety of patients participating in experiments and for the university's most valuable asset - its reputation. President William R. Brody, a major force behind Hopkins' new enterprising spirit, recognizes the perils, saying that academia's alliance with industry has created a "minefield of potential conflicts."

The Baltimore institution has not been tainted by scandals like those that have embarrassed other top schools. While Hopkins was painfully reminded of the risks involved in medical experiments when a healthy young woman died June 2 after participating in an asthma study, there is no evidence that the doctors involved had any financial interest in the outcome - and therefore no suggestion that their judgment might have been clouded by financial incentives.

But elsewhere at the medical school, officials have given their blessing to the kinds of financial deals that have caused trouble at other universities.

Hopkins recently allowed a senior scientist to inoculate volunteers with an experimental vaccine developed by a company he co-founded. It permitted physicians to do human testing of tiny Magnetic Resonance Imaging devices that they had invented - instruments being developed by a company that the doctors and Hopkins partly own. A Hopkins neurologist recently tested a drug that could earn millions for Hopkins, some of its leading scientists and a company closely tied to both.

According to Brody, the benefits of academia's new partnership with corporations outweigh the risks. "To move your research forward, you've got to do partnerships with industry," he says.

Some administrators even say the lure of money can help focus scientists on important work. As former Hopkins Vice Dean David Blake often told colleagues: "No conflict, no interest."

Unlike Harvard University, its chief rival, Hopkins does not bar scientists from conducting certain research - when, for example, they have more than $20,000 invested in the company sponsoring the work. Instead, Hopkins officials say they "manage" financial conflicts of interest by taking steps to discourage abuses - requiring scientists to place stock in escrow and to disclose to patients and publications their financial ties in drug trials.

Many medical researchers indignantly insist that the prospect of wealth would never lead them to cut corners or take unnecessary risks with patients. But many experts are unconvinced.

"It's the kind of arrogance you see in no other field," says Dr. Marcia Angell, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine. "What would be considered a grotesque conflict of interest if a politician or judge did it is somehow not in a physician."

Publicly, Hopkins describes itself as moving cautiously into what Brody calls the "no man's land" between universities and corporations. But privately, school officials at times have adopted a bolder tone.

Dr. Bart Chernow, then vice dean of research at the medical school, strode into a corporate boardroom in Rockville in September 1998 and pumped the hand of J. Craig Venter, who had just launched a company to decipher the human genome.