Academic Drug Conflicts Probe: "Problems With Transparency Are Everywhere"

Last Updated Oct 3, 2008 7:01 PM EDT

charles grassleyEmory. Harvard. Stanford. Brown. The University of Texas. The University of Cincinnati. It's a roll call of the nation's most prominent schools of psychiatry. But top researchers and professors at those schools could, essentially, be rented out by drug companies for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Then, those academics allegedly concealed their drug company ties even when they were supposed to be declaring them to their employers (the universities, not the drug firms), a story in today's New York Times indicates.

The allegations -- backed by documents and emails -- have spilled out of Sen. Charles Grassley's probe of academic conflicts with drug companies.

Among them:
  • That Dr. Charles B. Nemeroff of Emory was paid $2.8 million by drug companies but failed to report about $1.2 million of that to Emory, a violation of federal research rules. The Times says he has "written" more than "850 research reports and reviews."
  • Dr. Melissa P. DelBello of the University of Cincinnati was paid $238,000 by AstraZeneca but only declared $100,000 to the school.
  • Dr. Joseph Biederman and Dr. Timothy E. Wilens of Harvard Medical School earned $1.6 million from drug companies but reported only "several hundred thousand dollars apiece" to the school.
  • Dr. Alan F. Schatzberg of Stanford -- president-elect of the American Psychiatric Association -- has $4.8 million in stock in a drug development company.
  • Karen Wagner of the University of Texas who worked on a National Institutes of Health study involving GlaxoSmithKline's Paxil antidepressant allegedly did not disclose more than $150,000 in consulting and speaking fees from GSK.
  • Dr. John Rush, also of UT, took about $18,000 from Eli Lilly but declared ony $3000.
The drug business has traditionally been one of the most secretive, least transparent industries in the country, frequently hiding behind rhetoric about "proprietary" information and not wanting to reveal "strategy" to competitors. For instance, almost all major pharma companies refuse to reveal how much they spend on marketing even though those numbers are publicly reported to Nielsen, TNS Media Intelligence, and the SEC. (Of course, if your marketing plan is based on secrecy I'd politely suggest that you don't have much of a marketing plan.)

This probe may finally put the nail in the coffin of those who think that profits should be based on confidentiality. It has certainly reduced the credibility of academic research at major institutions to zero.

"After questioning about 20 doctors and research institutions, it looks like problems with transparency are everywhere," Grassley said today. "The current system for tracking financial relationships isn't working." Grassley wants a bill passed, the Physician Payment Sunshine Act, which would require companies to disclose payments to doctors that exceed $500.

No doubt GSK and Lilly, who have both opposed such payment disclosures -- although Lilly later flipped on the issue -- will immediately issue letters claiming that such disclosures will somehow prevent them from doing research in universities or building research facilities near such campuses, as they did in May and September.

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