INSTITUTE of MEDICINE REPORT on CONFLICT of INTEREST
Today we saw a new marker laid down in the arena called Conflict of Interest (COI). The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences issued a report of its Committee on Conflict of Interest in Medical Research, Education and Practice. The report is comprehensive, even exhaustive, running to 353 pages. Gardner Harris in the New York Times today calls it “scolding,” “stinging,” and “damning.” The recommendations go well beyond any proposed in the recent past by medical schools or by other professional organizations. The NYT quoted David Rothman, president of the Institute on Medicine as a Profession at Columbia University: “With the I.O.M.’s endorsement, issues that were once controversial now are indisputable. Conflicts of interest in medicine are no longer acceptable.”
It will take some time for the field to digest the scope of the IOM recommendations. It will take even longer for the new standards to be implemented. For now, I offer just a few observations.
First, if the IOM hopes for maximum credibility then it might ought want to do some housecleaning. A few years ago I fired a shot across the bow of the IOM concerning COI. [Can the Institute of Medicine Review the FDA? Nature Medicine 11, 369 (1 April 2005) doi:10.1038/nm0405-369] Nothing much changed, and in the following years, national scandals erupted involving several of the issues I had highlighted. Prominent IOM members, who were well known to be poster boys for COI, were exposed by Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). Their embarrassing behaviors included incomplete financial disclosures and noncompliance with NIH policy on financial conflict of interest. The exposés included Emory’s Charles Nemeroff and Stanford’s Alan Schatzberg. In both cases, administrative rearrangements have now been implemented. The case of Dr. Nemeroff has been referred by Senator Grassley to the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services. It is perhaps no accident that Dean Claudia Adkison of Emory and Dean Philip Pizzo of Stanford were included as external reviewers of the draft IOM report. Their insights would have been invaluable.
Another ongoing embarrassment for the IOM is Lester Crawford. He was the FDA Commissioner who resigned abruptly in 2005 and later pleaded guilty to criminal conflict of interest. He had been charged with falsely reporting information about his stock holdings in companies he was in charge of regulating. He received a sentence of three years of supervised probation and a fine of about $90,000. He is now senior counsel with a health care lobbying firm in Washington, DC. The Institute of Medicine does not help its image by continuing the membership of such a compromised individual.
As the Emory-Nemeroff and Stanford-Schatzberg cases unfolded it appeared that the respective institutions had themselves contributed to the problems, either through inaction or through studiously nontransparent procedures on disclosure. Stanford, for instance, apparently did not require faculty members to report the proceeds of stock sales, and when challenged the university invoked on-line financial reporting services and SEC filings as a sufficient substitute. Not surprisingly, because Stanford didn’t know about Dr. Schatzberg’s realized gain of some $109,000 from sale of founder’s stock in his biotech start-up company, Corcept Therapeutics, this information was not reported to NIH.
Recommendation 4.1 One of the IOM’s recommendations applies particularly to the Stanford-Schatzberg case. Recommendation 4.1 addresses the boundary between academia and commerce in the case of research involving human subjects. Here is the specific language:
“Academic medical centers and other research institutions should establish a policy that individuals generally may not conduct research with human participants if they have a significant financial interest in an existing or potential product or a company that could be affected by the outcome of the research. Exceptions to the policy should be made public and should be permitted only if the conflict of interest committee (a) determines that an individual’s participation is essential for the conduct of the research and (b) establishes an effective mechanism for managing the conflict and protecting the integrity of the research…” (page S-14).
Last year I posted several times about this issue in the Stanford-Schatzberg case. It is gratifying now to see the IOM affirm the importance of the boundary. The activities declared off-limits by the IOM include not only “recruiting subjects; obtaining informed consent; assessing the clinical end points;” but also “analyzing data; or writing the results, conclusions, and abstracts for publications reporting the findings of the study.” (page 4-17). In Stanford’s earlier plan for managing the conflict and protecting the integrity of the research, Dr. Schatzberg was free to engage in the latter group of activities. Indeed, his hands were all over the project when it came to responding to scientific critiques, managing the climate of professional opinion, attacking and threatening critics, promoting his company’s interest through review articles and press releases, slipping unpublished and non-peer-reviewed commercial data into academic reviews, and generally conducting commercially slanted public relations through academic outlets.
When Stanford adopts the IOM recommendations, such activities will be blocked. As I stated last year, “Review articles that assess a field and synthesize data form a crucial part of science that has to be off-limits to Dr. Schatzberg just as much as assessing patients in one of his clinical trials would be.”
We should congratulate the IOM committee members for their work, and we hope to see the field embrace their recommendations.