Saturday, September 10, 2005

Yet More Conflicts of Interest at the NIH

The Seattle Times reported that a congressional committee has asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to look into more alleged conflicts of interest at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), a part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The story is centered on Dr. Richard D. Klausner, former director of the NCI from 1995 to 2001. While Klausner was a candidate for two jobs at Harvard University, the university was competing for a $40 million contract from the NCI. Klausner eventually did not get a job at Harvard, but after leaving the NCI, "joined the board of a for-profit Boston company, Infinity Phamaceuticals, which was co-founded by a Harvard researcher who won the NCI contract, according to the Times.
The congressional committee concluded that "'documents and witness statements provide reasonable grounds to believe that NCI director participated personally and substantially as a government employee in matters affecting Harvard' in 1999."
In 2003, Klausner had told the Cancer Letter, "I had zero interaction during any point during the review and decision process. To this day, I have no idea who was on the [review] committee." However, the congressional committee wrote that Klausner "claimed in an e-mail that he personally recruited three of the ten member of the [above review] panel, according to records and interviews."
Klausner is currently Executive Director of the Global Health Division of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
This adds to the increasing number of stories about conflicts of interest at the NIH from the 1990's through the beginning of the 21st century. Such stories, in my humble opinion, highlight the need for the more stringent policies on conflict of interest that have been put in place by the current NIH director, despite ongoing opposition by NIH staff who seem to prefer how things were in the 1990's. (See most recent post here.)
The NIH has tremendous influence on biomedical science, clinical medicine and health policy. The conflicts of interest reported in this and previous stories raise strong suspicions that some of this influence has in the past been wielded unfairly to benefit outside organizations rather than the general public, patients, and science.
For this once proud organization to regain the public trust, such conflicts need to be eliminated, even if some current NIH employees will have to do without fat consulting fees, and might even have to learn how to invest somewhere other than health related stocks.

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