A RESEARCH team at Newcastle University has been awarded nearly a quarter of a million dollars in federal funds to assess a commercial weight loss program that already pays its leader as a consultant.Dr Clare Collins is part of The Biggest Loser’s ”experts” panel and a consultant to the Biggest Loser Club, its online spin-off.She heads a research team at the university that won in June $240,000 from the Federal Government’s Australian Research Council to develop ”novel strategies to enhance internet-based weight loss and weight maintenance programs”.Media releases from the university said the grant would be used to evaluate the Biggest Loser Club but didn’t mention Dr Collins’ connections with the club or the show.The university’s deputy vice-chancellor of research, Mike Calford, said yesterday ”it was a level of detail I don’t think [we] needed to go into”. He said the university encouraged such relationships between its researchers and industry.The case raises broader questions about the independence of university researchers in such partnerships.The Biggest Loser Club operates under licence from the show’s producers but is owned and run as a separate commercial entity by Scott Penn, a co-owner of the Manly Sea Eagles.Through his company, SP Health, Mr Penn is contributing nearly $400,000 to Dr Collins’ research efforts, complementing the $240,000 from the Australian Research Council. He also funded a PhD student on Dr Collins’ team last year.On the club’s website Mr Penn writes: ”Preliminary results from the University of Newcastle [2008] research about the effectiveness of our website are very encouraging.”Members are not alerted to the fact the research is being co-funded by his company.Mr Penn has co-authored a diet book with Dr Collins and Dr John Dixon called The Click Diet, which is promoted through the Biggest Loser Club website.Mr Penn launched the club in 2007. It now boasts at least 50,000 members, who pay a $30 joining fee and between $30 and$50 a month depending on how long they sign up for.The club sells diet books and DVDs as well as a range of ”replacement meal” products including bars, soups and shakes which are available in supermarkets. Replacement meal products are regarded sceptically by some dietitians.In a statement to the Herald, the university said it ”was and continues to be satisfied with Associate Professor Clare Collins’s declaration of involvement with SP Health at the time of application for the ARC Linkage grant”.”The university encourages academic staff to consult within their area of expertise as this contributes to their professional development and standing.”Dr Collins, an associate professor of nutrition, said she had fully complied with research council conflict-of-interest rules.The council, while refusing to comment on this particular case, told the Herald it only exempts researchers from these rules where it is satisfied ”the outcome of the research is not affected”.Dr Collins denied her multiple roles might compromise her independence as a researcher.”The main reason I am working with the Biggest Loser Club is because they are interested in the evidence behind weight loss and trying to improve the effectiveness of their online program, and that sits with my evidence-based approach to nutrition and dietetics,” she said.Mr Penn said he hired Dr Collins because she was already familiar with the show, and because she played ”with a straight bat”.He said he paid her less than $10,000 a year as a consultant, and she received an author’s fee and not royalties for the book they co-wrote.Dr Collins is a regular spokeswoman for the Dietitians Association of Australia and backed a call last month for the weight loss industry to implement a mandatory code of practice which would apply to meal replacement products. Only a voluntary code exists, administered by the Weight Management Council of Australia.Mr Penn and his club are no longer members of the council, although he was a director. He said he abided by its code ”in principle” but believed it had not yet worked out a clear strategy.
Nanjing Night Net