DR. PANGLOSS AS NIH INSTITUTE DIRECTOR
JAMA is out today with a Commentary by Dr. Thomas Insel, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health. Using indirection, Dr. Insel has risen to the defense of seven academic psychiatrists on whom an ethical searchlight has been trained for the past several years by Senator Grassley and others. With ludicrous optimism and a series of straw man discussions, Dr. Insel makes the case that things are not really as bad as they seemed to be or, if they were, then other specialty physicians were doing much the same things. Dr. Insel needs to recalibrate his ethical compass.
Why is an NIH Institute Director issuing this apologia for the corruption of academic psychiatry? Does he not have better things to do, such as ensuring that longstanding NIH regulations on conflict of interest are enforced? Why does an NIH Institute Director presume to speak for academic psychiatry? Where are the leaders of the major professional and scientific organizations like the American Psychiatric Association, the American College of Psychiatrists, the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, and the Society of Biological Psychiatry? Why are they not stepping up publicly to the plate? Perhaps they are confounded by the awkward fact that some of the seven individuals are current and past presidents of these very organizations. Even the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences has not sanctioned those of the seven who are Institute members.
Why is an NIH Institute Director downplaying the gravity of the ethical controversies surrounding these compromised individuals like Charles Nemeroff at Emory (now at Miami), and Alan Schatzberg at Stanford? To hear Dr. Insel tell it, all they did was fail to disclose income from pharmaceutical companies. That is not the half of it. Readers can look here and here for much more detail on the activities of Nemeroff and Schatzberg. If Dr. Insel chose to remain ignorant of or to overlook the history of false claims on behalf of pharmaceutical corporations or the concealment of consulting relationships or the complaisance with ghostwriting or the patently misleading “educational” presentations or the cashing in through stock sales or the editorial self dealing, then Dr. Insel’s fitness to serve as an NIH Institute Director needs to be reviewed.
Surely Dr. Insel knows that Nemeroff and the others worked mainly with the marketing personnel within pharmaceutical companies. Nemeroff’s staggering schedule of promotional talks for GlaxoSmithKline, released by Senator Grassley, is testament to that. So is Nemeroff’s record of priming the pump for himself with GSK by giving the corporation unpublished research data from NIMH-funded projects at Emory. In turn, GSK and its medical education communications company, Scientific Therapeutics Information, Inc., incorporated Nemeroff’s privileged material in the training manual for PsychNet – a speaker program designed to build advocacy for GSK’s antidepressant drug Paxil. These issues go well beyond just failing to report income. They signify the corruption of academic psychiatry. Doesn’t Dr. Insel understand that?
In his Commentary, Dr. Insel reported no financial disclosures. This is a good example of the problem that Dr. Insel doesn’t see. Many readers will interpret this Commentary from the Director of NIMH as the opening move in the attempted rehabilitation of Charles Nemeroff by his friends and cronies. Though Dr. Insel spoke in platitudes about the need for transparency as a solution, the spirit of transparency did not move him to disclose that Nemeroff is his former boss at Emory; that Nemeroff found a position for him when Insel was departing the intramural research program at NIMH; that Nemeroff lobbied for Insel’s appointment as NIMH Director; and that Insel appointed Nemeroff as an advisor soon after he moved to NIMH. These are pertinent conflicts of interest that readers of JAMA deserve to know about. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
Maybe Dr. Insel should stick to his knitting and resist the impulse to speak for academic psychiatry as a whole. A good place for him to start looking hard would be at the productivity and accounting of the once vaunted Emory-GSK-NIMH Collaborative Mood Disorders Initiative (Principal Investigator Charles B. Nemeroff; 5U19MH069056). One never knows what one will find when the rocks are turned over.
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