Monday, December 04, 2006

NIH Leader Indicted for "Criminal Conflict of Interest" for his Relationship with Pfizer Inc.

We have posted a lot about the story of wide-spread conflicts of interest affecting top leaders at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). After the NIH conflict of interest rules were relaxed in the mid-1990's, some top NIH managers received 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).

Most recently interest has focused on two cases. 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. (See posts here, here, and here.)

So today, while newspapers were filled with stories of Pfizer's withdrawal of torcetrapib, a drug it had hyped as a new kind of treatment to prevent heart disease, a striking follow-up about Sunderland's relationship with Pfizer Inc. appeared with much less fanfare. Per the Associated Press (as available here from the Boston Globe), Dr Trey Sunderland has just been indicted for "criminal conflict of interest." The Globe reported (somewhat re-ordered):

In a rare federal prosecution, a leading government Alzheimer's researcher was charged Monday with a criminal conflict of interest for performing lucrative private drug company work that overlapped his official duties.

Prosecutors alleged Dr. Trey Sunderland of the National Institutes of Health received $285,000 in improper consulting fees and travel expenses from Pfizer, Inc., for work on early indicators of Alzheimer's at the same time he also oversaw similar NIH business with the drugmaker.
The private consulting 'directly related' to his government job, and Sunderland failed to obtain the proper approvals from his supervisors or disclose the work to NIH, according to papers filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

The felony charge carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a $100,000 fine. Prosecutors filed the charge as a criminal information, instead of indictment, signaling the possibility of a plea deal.

The prosecution is believed to be the first such case against a federal scientist since the early 1990s.

Sunderland refused to testify before Congress last June, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee which launched the probe called Monday for Sunderland's dismissal. Otherwise, Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., said in a statement, 'We can only conclude that no one is being held accountable, the system is broken and the public trust has been violated.'

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., complained Sunderland had been kept on even after Department of Health and Human Services agencies found wrongdoing in their own internal investigations.

'Will a criminal conviction for conflict of interest be enough to get someone fired from NIH?' he asked.

Ned Feder, a former NIH scientist now with the non-profit watchdog group Project on Government Oversight, said 'in this and similar cases NIH authorities have made it habit of covering up or minimizing wrongdoing. They are still hiding the details of other scientists' conflicts of interest over the past 10 years.'

Experts said the last prosecution of a senior NIH scientist was that of Prem Sarin, who was convicted in 1992 of embezzling a drug company payment to NIH that was intended to help with AIDS research.
Of course, an indictment does not prove criminal guilt. But the indictment of a formerly respected leader within the NIH for "criminal conflict of interest" certainly is a noteworthy step in the process of finally facing up to the conflicts that apparently afflicted a considerable number of the mid- and upper leadership of the NIH. These conflicts, in turn, are only a sub-set of the conflicts of interest that pervade other health care organizations, including medical schools and academic medical centers.

However, this case raises a further question. If Sunderland deserved indictment for taking money as a "consultant" from Pfizer Inc., and delivering to Pfizer samples he obtained while he nominally was working full-time for the NIH on issues related to his consulting assignment, what does Pfizer Inc., or the leaders there who decided to initiate the relationship with Sunderland, deserve?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dr. Poses:

Thanks so much for your wonderful blog!

The recent news about the NIMH’s Dr. Sunderland, though extremely sad, almost seems like “business as usual” to me. In light of all the other medical “conflict of interest” stories that abound these days, I don’t find this one to be particularly shocking. What I do find shocking is the statement on the forum ( that “NIH officials said more than 40 scientists were thought to have engaged in outside, fee-based relationships with private companies. Most were disciplined internally or retired, agency officials said.”

My goodness.

What I think is really shocking and very sad –- at least to me -– is that, even after the public is informed about these unholy alliances among Big Pharm, physicians, and government officials, the public continues –- incredibly -- to trust all three groups.

How many exposés do we have to read before we finally “get it”? Is the mainstream media so tied to Big Pharma that they don’t give these exposés proper follow-up?

I had hoped that the public would finally wake up after the flurry of media activity resulting from David Armstrong’s excellent 2-part exposé (at and in the “Wall Street Journal” this past summer. As you know, in these articles, Mr. Armstrong exposed the fact that the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) had published articles about pharmaceutical studies whose physician/authors had serious financial ties to the drug industry –- financial ties which they had failed to disclose. Particularly disturbing to me was that fact that, when confronted, these physician/researchers didn’t seem to understand the reasons WHY they should have disclosed their financial ties.

I was so struck by this that I wrote a 3-part article, “The JAMA Controversy” (, for my blog/website,, in which I also expanded on one of the many very important disclosures made by Mr. Armstrong: that JAMA actually used slick, professionally produced Video News Releases (VNRs, or “fake news”) to publicize its now-controversial studies.(VNRs, used routinely by pharmaceutical companies, are in themselves extremely controversial.)

Yet, stories of these kinds of conflicts of interest and financial ties keep coming. Even the CDC has been implicated recently ( The list goes on.

As you well know, there are some wonderful blogs and websites -- like this one -- that keep up on these stories, so the news is “out there.” But in my opinion, mainstream media doesn't do as good a job –- probably because they are beholden to the pharmaceutical industry for advertising revenue.

Some of the other websites and blogs that I think do an excellent job of informing the public about these conflicts of interest include: The Health Care Blog at; the Alliance for Human Research Protection’s (AHRP) website and blog at and; Scientific Misconduct at; Gooznews at; Pharmagossip at; Healthy Skepticism at; Kevin MD at; and Pharmawatch at And, in addition to my article, “The JAMA Controversy,” mentioned above, my blog/website,, has lots of articles on that detail these kinds financial ties and conflicts of interest.

Hopefully, more people will go online for their information. But as of now, we as a society seem to continue to trust these people and organizations that simply do not deserve our trust.

Thank you.
Julia Schopick