Last year during an internal NIH review, Dr. Thomas J. Walsh -- a senior researcher who has led major cancer drug trials -- was found to have committed "serious misconduct" that could lead to his dismissal by accepting the drug firms' money. An internal review document found that "Dr. Walsh has engaged in serious misconduct, in violation of the Department's Standards of Conduct Regulations and federal law and regulation."
The NIH has taken no disciplinary action against Walsh, and the House Energy and Commerce Committee's investigative subcommittee is expected to conduct a hearing into the NIH's handling of Walsh's case sometime this week. The subcommittee will also examine the case of another researcher -- Dr. P. Trey Sunderland III -- who accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in drug company fees without permission, while working on Alzheimer's disease research.
NIH officials found that Walsh took $100,970 from pharmaceutical and biotech companies between 1999 and 2004, while simultaneously leading government-sponsored research of some of the contributing companies' drugs. Walsh was found to have taken fees from both Merck & Co. and Pfizer Inc. The NIH review found Walsh had taken $3,000 to attend Merck-sponsored events in 2000 and 2001, while he was leading a "research and development agreement" between Merck and the NIH.
"The review panel finds that the scientific subject matter of the activities overlap directly with Dr. Walsh's research at NIH," wrote Holly Beckerman Jaffe, chief ethics lawyer for the NIH.
"And yet the NIH has taken absolutely no disciplinary action against Dr. Walsh," countered Mike Adams, a consumer health advocate and critic of drug company influence in the scientific community. "In any other industry, this would be considered a clear case of criminal corruption demanding immediate action," Adams said. "But in conventional medicine, it's business as usual. Can you imagine the outcry if a cop were caught taking $100,000 from a drug dealer?"
Walsh's lawyers contend that the NIH's rules regarding accepting drug company money are complicated, and say Walsh never served as a representative or advocate for any drug company.