University of Sydney pulls claims elderberries can fight flu

One of the country's leading universities has been forced to retract a claim its study showed eating elderberries could help beat the flu after admitting it was overhyping its own science.

The University of Sydney also concealed the research was part-funded by company Pharmacare - which sells elderberry-based flu remedies - at the company's request.

Although it was declared in the study itself, the university also failed to publicise that a Pharmacare employee was involved in the research.

The flu-busting claim, made in a press release and published on the university's website, attracted national and international media attention, most of which did not mention the Pharmacare funding.

"Eating elderberries can help minimise influenza symptoms," the university's statement said.

The university initially stood by the claim, but on Monday, following repeated questions from The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald it acknowledged there was no evidence to support that assertion.

It has withdrawn the press release and launched an investigation into how it was produced, and said it would change its practices to always highlight industry funding.

The study itself involved dosing human cells in a lab with concentrated elderberry juice. There were no tests on humans, or even on mice.

The Age and the Herald do not suggest this is improper, and do not question the validity of the study itself or the work of the study's authors.

But while it is widely acknowledged very few results in mice translate to humans - this research was conducted at an even earlier, cellular, level.

"This is an appalling misrepresentation of this Pharmacare-funded in-vitro study," said associate professor Ken Harvey, president of Friends of Science in Medicine.

"It was inappropriate and misleading to imply from this study that an extract was 'proven to fight flu'."

The press release did not mention the study was funded by Pharmacare, a company that sells elderberry-based natural supplement Sambucol.

A University of Sydney spokeswoman confirmed Pharmacare was shown a copy of the press release before it was published.

"A near-final copy of the University of Sydney media release was sent to Pharmacare as a courtesy prior to its distribution," the spokeswoman said.

One of the study's authors, said - for reasons they did not understand - Pharmacare did not want the company's name included in the press release.

"We asked them, 'Do you want to be named?' Although they were very excited about all the promotion of their products, they don't want to be specifically named," they said.

The embarrassing incident illustrates the dangers of universities and scientific bodies accepting money from companies selling non-evidence-based supplements.

Earlier this year The Age and the Herald revealed the CSIRO was earning money from an endorsement of a diet pill, despite there being no evidence the pill helped anyone lose weight.

Ray Moynihan is an assistant professor at Bond University's Centre for Research in Evidence-Based Practice and an honorary adjunct associate professor at the University of Sydney.

He studies how science is reported by the media.

"If it is the case the sponsor requested not to be in the press release, and that was the reason they were excluded from it, that raises serious concerns about transparency," he said. "It is vital information for us to know who sponsored the study."

Pharmacare sells products based on Sambucol, a "pleasant tasting" liquid made from black elderberries. It claims Sambucol "may help cut the duration of cold and flu symptoms".

The company, which also sells Ease-a-cold and FatBlaster, generated close to $300 million in revenue in the last financial year, according to IBISWorld data.

Professor Harvey has previously complained about the marketing of other Pharmacare products.

The company has been forced to withdraw claims about other products they said were "scientifically proven" to work.

Pharmacare did not return a request for comment.

The University of Sydney's acting deputy vice-chancellor (research) Professor Laurent Rivory said university staff would be directed to always include funding information in press releases.

"The accurate reporting of our research is crucial. It should have been clearer in the media release that the research didn't involve the human consumption of elderberries and that more research was required before the full impact on humans could be determined.

"There was no attempt to hide the funding source from the media. The authors included Pharmacare among its financial contributors in the published paper, which is publicly available online and a link to this paper was included in the final media release."

"We received nearly $3 million from the Australian Research Council and had 11 industry partners. The cash contribution from Pharmacare was less than 1 per cent (0.8 per cent) of the total available funds. The funds are being used for a range of research projects, not just this particular study."