Iowa Senator Targets Stanford Prof For Conflict Of Interest

This story was written by Ryan Mac, The Stanford Daily
Psychiatry Prof. Allan Schatzberg, a renowned and well-respected member of Stanfords School of Medicine, has become the center of a Senate investigation into researchers who work on university campuses, while also cooperating with drug companies and other outside corporations.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) and the Senate Finance Committee pursued an investigation of whether it is necessary to regulate and restrict the relationships between researchers, universities and private companies.

Schatzberg, the Kenneth T. Norris Professor and Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, as well as elected president of the American Psychiatric Association, became a focus of the inquiry when Grassley looked into his financial records. The senator concluded in an address to committee that the lack of consistency between what Dr. Schatzberg reported to Stanford and what several drug companies reported to me seems to follow a pattern of behavior.

Among discrepancies noted was a $22,000 payment made from Johnson and Johnson, as well as the professors failure to report holdings in the drug company Corcept.

The latter situation has provided the source of much debate for Sen. Grassley and the Senate Finance Committee. Corcept Theraputics, founded in 1998, is a leader in depression treatment, especially with the recently developed Mifepristone (RU-486). With over $6 million in stock in Corcept, Schatzberg, who is also a cofounder of the company, is being investigated for an alleged failure to report stock and the sales of stock in excess of $100,000 (the threshold for reporting holdings) to Stanford.

The University denies, however, that Schatzberg sidestepped any University policy. Stanford defended Schatzbergs adherence in a recent press release.

We believe it important to emphasize that the University was fully aware of the extent of Dr. Schatzbergs stake in Corcept Therapeutics and managed the conflict of interest to ensure that it did not influence the research he was conducting, the release stated. Dr. Schatzberg has consistently disclosed on his annual conflict-of-interest forms his ownership of equity in Corcept Therapeutics in excess of $100,000.

Furthermore, regarding Dr. Schatzbergs activities with Johnson and Johnson, the University said that errors in financial records, mislabeling and differences in fiscal-year time periods were behind the Senates claimed discrepancies.

In an email to The Stanford Daily,Schatzberg said that he has done everything possible to follow University and government policy.

I have fully complied with all disclosures required by Stanford and the National Institute of Health, he said. I am committed to the pursuit of knowledge that will lead to the alleviation of the pain and suffering of those with severe psychiatric illnesses. No one likes to be under scrutiny of a Congressional investigation; however, I know my work has been conducted with the utmost integrity, meeting the highest standards of disclosure.

Stanfords way of dealing with cases such as Schatzberg is twofold, differentiating research situations that can be conflicts of commitment from those that are conflicts of interest. While it requires that faculty members annually disclose their involvement in either type of conflict, the University has different means of handling each circumstance.

The Universitys management of conflicts of commitment those situations in which a faculty member is away from Stanford for non-academic business was outlined in a March 14 letter to Grassley that concerned Schatzberg.

The University requires that each faculty member certify that he or she has not exceeded the limit of 13 days per quarter of outside cosultation, wrote the University. No financial information is requested because [...] Stanford is focused on the time commitment of each faculty to the University, as balanced with the critical role that faculty expertise can provide to outside organizations.

The Universitys definition for conflicts of interest is outlined on its Web site for the Office of the Vice Provost and Dean of Research.

A conflict of interest occurs when there is a divergence between an individuals private interests and his or her professional obligations to the University such that an independent observer might reasonably question whether an individuals professional actions or decisions are determined by considerations of personal gain, financial or otherwise, the policy states.

Maintaining that supposed conflicts of interest are dependant on the situation, the University said in its letter to Grassley that it holds a zero-dollar threshold for disclosure. This requires that faculty members divulge any and all financial gains made through outside interactions that could have bearing on what they are doing on campus.

Yet while the policy may seem straightforward, the difficulty in understanding and applying these policies to University researchers and private companies has provided plenty of misunderstanding and confusion. Long-time professor and researcher William Dement summed up these relationships between doctors and the medicine industry in one word: Complex.

Devin Banerjee contributed to this report.
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