Kidneys aren’t as s-xy as br-asts or as emotive as hearts. Consequently it is even more difficult to raise money for kidney failure than it is for br-ast cancer and heart attacks.

The non-profit organisation Kidney Health Australia has risen to this challenge by being refreshingly honest about putting their good name up for sale.

Corporations are invited by Kidney Health Australia’s website to join “partnerships” that in their words “can be tailored to suit your organisational and industry objectives across a range of program areas or concentrated in a specific field of interest.”

This partnership strategy is bearing fruit. For example, the giant Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche has recently sponsored a kidney quiz brochure. Amongst other things this brochure mentions that anemia is almost inevitable after long term kidney disease because the kidneys play an important role in the production of red blood cells. This is called r-nal anemia.

Why is Roche sponsoring this brochure? What corporate objective is being served? The three main benefits for drug companies from sponsoring patients’ advocacy groups are:

  1. To get a front group for promotion of an expensive new drug. This can be very effective because patient advocacy groups are often much better trusted than drug companies.
  2. To silence criticism. No one likes to bite that hand that feeds them. For example the Arthritis Foundation have not criticised Merck for the promotion of Vioxx, an arthritis drug that probably killed more Australians than the Bali bombing.
  3. To gain political pressure on the government to pay excessive prices for drugs. By contrast governments should act in the interests of all Australians by bargaining for lower prices so that there is more money left over for other health products and services.

Interestingly Roche have a new drug that’s not yet approved for use in Australia called Mircera for – have you guessed? – r-nal anaemia. It’s a long acting version of erythropoietin aka EPO famously used illicitly by cyclists.

EPO is a hormone produced by healthy kidneys that stimulates the bone marrow to make oxygen carrying red blood cells. Extra EPO may be harmful for fit cyclists but can provide modest benefits for people with a deficiency due to kidney disease. It seems Micera is no more or less effective than other versions of the hormone. However it is more convenient because patients don’t need to take it so often.

Here’s a conspiracy theory: perhaps Roche are buying Kidney Health Australia’s silence or support for a big price for a small convenience advantage. Alternately Roche staff may be supporting kidneys out of the kindness of their hearts. I’ll bet Roche are keeping their real reasons close to their chests.

Dr Mansfield is a GP, founder of Healthy Skepticism Inc and a Lecturer in the Discipline of General Practice, University of Adelaide.