Thursday, June 15, 2006

Questioned About Receiving Consulting Fees from and Giving Tissue Samples to Pfizer, NIH Leader Takes the Fifth

We just posted about the results of a government investigation that concluded that Dr Trey Sunderland, a leader within in the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), part of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), provided tissue samples to Pfizer Inc while receiving consulting fees from the drug company.

More news articles provide more details. The Boston Globe raised the estimate of the amount of money Sunderland got from Pfizer, and provided an estimate of how much the samples given to Pfizer were worth:

According to congressional investigators, the National Institutes of Health's Dr. Trey Sunderland agreed to collaborate with Pfizer Inc. , the world's largest drug company. Sunderland, chief of the geriatric psychiatry branch of the National Institute for Mental Health , sent Pfizer 3,200 tubes of spinal fluid and 388 tubes of plasma collected for Alzheimer's research.

The government spent $6.4 million to obtain the 3,500 samples that showed how Alzheimer's disease progressed in 538 subjects.

Pfizer paid Sunderland $285,000 in consulting fees related to the samples, investigators said. In total, Pfizer paid him more than $600,000 from 1998 to 2004 for outside consulting and speaking fees.

'Contrary to the House committee report, Dr. Sunderland did not receive any payments from Pfizer for human tissue samples,' said Robert F. Muse, the scientist's Washington, D.C., attorney. 'He acted properly, ethically, and legally in his relationship with Pfizer.'
The Washington Post reported that Sunderland "asserted his Fifth Amendment rights [to avoid self-incrimination] Wednesday and refused to testify before congress about allegations that he profited from sharing human tissue samples with a drug company." Sunderland was quoted: "I respectfully decline to answer this question and any other questions based on my constitutional rights." Commented Representative Ed Whitfield (R-Kentucky), Chair of the investigation and oversight subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee, "federal laws and policies do not permit NIH scientists to profit personally from their jobs, and thier patients by providing irreplaceable government assets." Furthermore, the Director of the NIMH, Dr Thomas Insel, "said he would have fired Sunderland but did not have the authority because the scientist, though tasked to the institute, was employed by the public health Commissioned Corps. Insel said he had recommended to the Commissioned Corps in November 2005 that Sunderland be terminated."

It is another sad day for the once proud NIH when one of its top leaders refuses to testify in a case like this. The good news is that last year, the NIH tightened its restrictions on outside consulting work done by NIH scientists and managers. The bad news is that the scope of the conflicts of interest at the agency seems even larger than earlier reports indicated. Finally, it remains odd that the discussion of this case remains focused on Sunderland taking money from Pfizer and providing Pfizer with tissue samples, but not on Pfizer giving Sunderland money and receiving tissue samples.

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