Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Web of Conflicts of Interest: Why Did an NIH Leader Send Tissue Samples to Pfizer?

It has been a while since we have posted about the story of wide-spread conflicts of interest affecting top leaders at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). After the NIH rules were made lax in the mid-1990's, some top NIH managers were receiving five- and six-figure consulting payments from pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. Some failed to disclose these payments, even when writing journal articles favoring the products of the companies for which they worked. Since then, NIH Director Zerhouni made the organization's conflict of interest policies much more stringent, although not without opposition from some of his staff (see post here).

Now this issue has surfaced again. The Wall Street Journal just reported (link here - requires subscription) that "investigators for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, in a 26-page report, said a branch chief at the National Institute of Mental Health, Trey Sunderland, had provided to Pfizer more than 3,000 samples of human spinal fluid and plasma, beginning with a 1998 agreement between the NIH scientist and the company." Since this article is not yet available without a subscription, I will quote a bit of it. (A brief United Press International summary is here.)

According to the House report, the samples were NIH property, but 'records and interviews provide reasonable grounds to believe that Dr. Sunderland personally received $285,000 in compensation from Pfizer' for providing the company with access to the samples.

The House staff said it had no evidence that Pfizer knew of the 'questionable conduct' of Dr. Sunderland.

A Pfizer spokeswoman said the New York company has been cooperating with the investigation 'because we fully embrace the ideals of transparency and compliance with ethical and business standards. She said, 'We're not aware of any allegations that Pfizer violated any laws, rules or regulations in its relationship with Dr. Sunderland.'
She said the consulting fees paid to Dr. Sunderland were 'reasonable and customary' for a doctor of his 'stature and experience and reflect the fair market value of his services. The payments were also permitted under NIH rules in place at the time.' He no longer consults for Pfizer, she said.
Yet another strand of the web of conflicts of interest comes to light. More may be revealed at upcoming hearings of the House committee during which several NIH staff are expected to testify. Perhaps the hearings will reveal where those who received the samples at Pfizer thought they were coming from, given that they knew where Dr Sunderland worked?

No comments: