World Health Organization, VCU collaborate on global tobacco control research initiative

Chris Suarez
Staff Writer

VCU was recently named a collaborative research partner with the World Health Organization and will perform several research studies on non-traditional tobacco products to assess potential health risks.

After receiving an $18.1 million dollar federal grant last September, researchers from VCU’s Department of Psychology’s Center for the Study of Tobacco Products were chosen to lead the first collaborative center in the Western hemisphere to partner with the World Health Organization on global tobacco control research.

International health policy experts visited VCU last Monday to tour MCV facilities, where research into novel tobacco products will take place on behalf of the United Nations’ World Health Organization starting early 2015.

“Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Tobacco Products is the latest addition to World Health Organization’s global network of collaborating centers,” said Carissa Etienne, regional director of the Pan American Health Organization in a statement to VCU News earlier this month.

She said the network brings together more than 700 highly regarded academic and scientific institutions in more than 80 countries that support World Health Organization programs and priorities with expertise and funding.

After spending more than a decade researching the health effects of waterpipe tobacco usage, director of VCU’s tobacco research center Thomas Eissenberg said his experience and the recent federal funding attracted World Health Organization officials to VCU.

Largely influenced by previous research Eissenberg and other international scientists conducted, the World Health Organization ratified the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2005.

Since becoming one of the fastest adopted treaties in the history of the United Nations, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control’s 179 ratifying nations deliberately acknowledge the adverse health effects tobacco consumption possesses. In ratifying the treaty, those nations accepted responsibility in making efforts to lower the mortality rate associated with tobacco usage.

The new collaborative center will be the fifth research partner to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and the first in the Americas. VCU will join collaborative partners in Japan, Burkina Faso, Singapore and the Netherlands.

While the goal of the new collaborative partnership between the World Health Organization and VCU could potentially be providing resources, research and funding for the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the United States has signed, but not yet ratified the treaty.

The relationship between VCU and the World Health Organization was not always as solid as it is now, however.

In 2006, the New York Times reported that a Freedom of Information request filed by the publication discovered contracts between VCU and Altria that were ethically questionable.

In the contract, VCU research professors were obligated to present reports to Altria and were forbidden to publish their findings. Researchers were told to relay any media inquiries made and were contractually kept from revealing any information related to their Altria sponsored studies.

In the New York Times article, VCU vice president of research and innovation Francis L. Macrina told journalist Alan Finder, “These restrictive clauses seek to protect the rights and interests of multiple parties in the agreement.” He added that VCU officials were working in conjunction with other non-VCU affiliated researchers.

Despite the ethical dilemmas posed in the past, the World Health Organization chose VCU to buttress the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control’s mission of ending tobacco as the number one cause of preventable death globally.

“It was of concern to the WHO while they were vetting us to see if we were qualified,” Eissenberg said. “It’s been a relief and a great source of pride that we’ve met (the WHO’s) standards. We do quality work and unbiased work.”

Eisenberg cited technical officer Gemma Vestal, a health policy analyst for the World Health Organization, as a key facilitator in the partnership between the global health organization and VCU.

“There are funding and research resources (in the US) for (the FCTC),” Vestal said. “The result of those efforts feed into global tobacco control policies (VCU) has been on the cusp of cutting-edge research into tobacco control and novel tobacco products.”

Citing another research grant VCU Massey Cancer Center received from the National Cancer Institute for $4.4 million dollars this August, Vestal said VCU has a lot of potential to provide a wealth of research and funding to the organization through the various grants and research the university receives and conducts annually.

According to the VCU News report on the collaboration, however, none of the $18.1 million dollar U.S. Food and Drug Administration grant will be used to conduct research on behalf of the World Health Organization.

In the press release, Eissenberg told VCU News that the VCU Collaborating Center on Tobacco Product Testing and Research will request funding from the Massey Cancer Center if the World Health Organization makes any direct request for assistance during the currently four-year long collaborative partnership.

In addition to being director of the new research center, Eissenberg is also a member of the Cancer Prevention and Control research program at VCU Massey Cancer Center.

The central focus of all projects are the health effects of electronic cigarettes. Currently there is low regulation of the popular and expanding industry, said American University of Beirut collaborative investigator Alan Shihadeh, who is studying toxicant yields and exposure from electronic cigarettes.

“The materials (in e-cigs) are proliferating so quick with new ones coming on the market rapidly,” Shihadeh said. He added that he believes mathematical models need to be considered the standard for evaluating electronic cigarettes because of the constantly changing market.

Working in conjunction with Foulds and Penn-State Hershey is VCU Psychology researcher Caroline Cobb. Cobb hopes to enroll over 500 research volunteers to participate in the collaborative programs they are conducting that utilize randomized control methods to analyze toxicant biomarkers for disease risk and abstinence symptoms and withdraw.

During the two six-month-long studies at both universities, research participants who are regular, strictly electronic cigarette users will receive a user-blind dosage of either low, medium, high or no nicotine level “juices.”

Over the course of their 12 structured visits, participants will slowly receive lower nicotine dosages and eventually abstain from “vaping” near the conclusion of the study.

“The (research control trial) is the gold standard of research, we can’t wait until they’re done with those studies and see what the findings are,” Vestal said. “Part of our role as the WHO is to help identify questions. Once the research is done, we disseminate the information for all the countries in the world. People who will use this information will not just be in the U.S., but also to those participatory to (the WHO) treaty.”

Cobb said the project has been in development for more than a year and has recently been submitted to the VCU Institutional Review Board to examine procedural and ethical integrity. Once approved, Cobb said the team plans to open enrollment for their project starting in February.

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