UW chairman takes heat over royalties from Medtronic

fight, battleThe old Medtronic Infuse controversy is being stirred up again.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel today published a story on Thomas Zdeblick, the chairman of the Department of Orthopedics & Rehabilitation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has received more than $25 million in royalties from Medtronic since 2003.

The article calls to question Zdeblick’s position as chairman of the department. Four Medtronic products that he had a role in inventing have been implanted in 179 patients at UW over the past three years, and he has co-authored several published research papers touting Medtronic’s Infuse spinal fusion products that have generated widespread criticism across the field for allegedly leaving out risks associated with the product.

In May, a Stanford professor published a study showing that Infuse posed a risk of male sterility. The New York Times reported in June that a group of spine specialists accused researchers paid by Medtronic of not reported serious risks associated with Infuse and exaggerating its benefits. In July, Zdeblick sent a retaliation letter to the editor of the Spine Journal, Dr. Eugene Carragee, a major critic of Infuse research. In the letter were specific complains related to methodology of the study which concluded that Infuse increases the risk of male sterility.


The Senate Finance Committee is also investigating Infuse. Medtronic announced in August that it was offering a $2.5 million grant to Yale researchers to review the product’s safety.

Jordan Cohen, a former president of the American Association of Medical Colleges; Arthur Caplan, a professor of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania; and David Rothman, president of Columbia University’s Institute on Medicine as a Profession, are quoted in the article questioning whether Zdeblick’s relationship with Medtronic is too significant for him to serve objectively as head of the department.

But the school is defending its chairman. “Dr. Zdeblick is one of the most talented and innovative orthopedic surgeons in the nation,” Robert Golden, dean of the UW School of Medicine and Public Health said in an emailed statement to the Journal Sentinel. “We are most fortunate to have him as department chair.”

He is among the highest-paid doctors at UW, earning more than $1 million in 2010, and also manages other faculty who consult for Medtronic or other medical device companies.

A University of Minnesota doctor who consults for Medtronic is also taking heat today. Dr. David Polly received a cautionary letter from the university for failing to disclose consulting work that resulted in more than $1 million in compensation.

Conflict of interest has been a hot topic in research this year, as the lines between inventor and customer become blurrier. According to a 2007 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 60 percent of chairmen at medical schools have a paying industry relationship.

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