A leading lung cancer researcher received funding from a tobacco company and failed to disclose the source of her funding in published studies, according to reports in two publications.
The news of tobacco funding for studies of lung cancer screening has set off a firestorm among medical researchers.
The disclosures involve not only questions about whether a leading academic institution did enough to disclose that funding for the study was coming from tobacco maker Liggett Group Inc., but also whether the world's leading medical journal knew about the potential conflict.
In October 2006, Dr. Claudia Henschke and colleagues from Cornell University published findings in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) that suggested screening smokers and former smokers with chest CT scans could dramatically cut lung cancer deaths, possibly by 80 percent.
At the end of the article, the authors stated: "No potential conflict of interest relevant to this article was reported."
When it became widely known that Henschke had received significant funding from Liggett, other prestigious journals like the Journal of the American Medical Association updated their disclosure statements for Henschke's articles, NEJM has yet to make any such change.
However, public tax records revealed that the little-known charity run by award-winning cancer researchers at Cornell identified in the research papers as partly funding the research.
According to the Cancer Letter, a newsletter on cancer research and funding, researchers led by Henschke failed to disclose to scientific journals that there were connections between the charity and the cigarette maker.
The Cancer Letter also stated that when she published her research in NEJM, Henschke failed to disclose information about 27 patents that she had for a lung cancer screening technology she had developed. In a letter to Dr. Bruce Chabner, editor of the journal The Oncologist, Henschke confirmed that Cornell receives royalties from some of these licensed patents.
"This is a no-brainer," said Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. "The researchers and Cornell did not act ethically since they were not honest about their funding sources."
Other researchers expressed concern that NEJM chose not to disclose the link to the tobacco funding for Henschke's research once they learned of it, while comparable medical journals like JAMA did.
"I don't know what NEJM editors were smoking," said Merrell Goozner, a reporter and director of the Integrity in Science project Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C.
"It makes mockery of any standard of relevance," he said. "The university is laundering this money and didn't disclose it in journal."
Cornell released a statement today saying that the university did nothing out of the ordinary. Cornell said the gift from Liggett had always been out in the open:
"The original $2.4 million pledge to the Foundation -- and the work funded by the Foundation at Weill Cornell -- was fully and publicly disclosed at the time through a press release, and was substantially covered in the lay media. It was discussed and disclosed in the academic community at conferences, which were widely attended by advocacy groups, agencies, and by investigators from around the world interested in lung cancer screening."
Cornell also noted, "As is typical at many institutions, [Henschke's patents'] royalties were distributed to Cornell, which, in turn, provided a share to the inventors under Cornell intellectual property policy," the statement read. "NIH [National Institutes of Health] Conflict of Interest regulations currently do not require individual disclosure of royalties paid to them by the employer institutions."
Medical journals rely on researchers to voluntarily disclose who funds their work in order to account for a possible bias. NEJM included the charity Foundation for Lung Cancer: Early Detection, Prevention & Treatment, along with General Electric in its list of organizations that funded Henschke's research -- but not the tobacco company that funded the charity.
Nor did Henschke disclose the patents held by the Cornell Research Foundation on CT scan reading, two of which were licensed by General Electric, according to Paul Goldberg, a reporter with Cancer Letter who helped break the story.
"I said, 'Whoa, this is fascinating,'" Goldberg said. "There are 27 patents here and two of them were licensed ... and none of this is declared ... none of the royalties, nothing."
"I'm convinced that this whole episode represents an attempt by the cigarette companies [to show] that you can smoke with impunity," said Bruce Chabner, clinical director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center.
ABC News contacted Weill Cornell Medical College and asked for an interview with Henschke. Cornell declined.
But, in a conversation with ABC News Medical Editor Dr. Tim Johnson, Weill Cornell Medical College Dean Dr. Antonio Gotto, who along with Henschke sits on the board of the Foundation for Lung Cancer, said there was never any attempt to hide the source of that foundation's funding.
He also said that Henschke's funding came with no strings attached and pointed out that there was a press release at the time of the gift.
But some researchers recoil at the thought of tobacco industry funds, whether the funds are disclosed or not.
"How can you, as an institution that is based on promoting public heath and medical research, take money from an industry that produces a product that causes health problems in the world?" asked Ruth Fadden, director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.
Though the key source of funding for Henschke's research has now been widely disclosed, some researchers say the situation may point to a need for fundamental changes in the way research funding is disclosed.
"These revelations show that the current voluntary system of disclosure of conflicts of interest is not working," said Jeffrey Spike, associate professor of medical humanities at Florida State University College of Medicine. "Tobacco companies and drug companies are treating it as a shell game, finding ways to avoid the intent of the policy."
"Researchers should be banned for life from journals when they don't disclose something that might be relevant," Spike said. "Someone who will take money and not reveal its source would be more honest if they simply worked for the companies paying for their research."
Lauren Cox of the ABC News Medical Unit and Reynolds Holding of the Law & Justice Unit contributed to this report.