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Conflict of interest

Top Alzheimer's researcher charged with felony criminal conduct for secret financial ties to Pfizer

Wednesday, December 06, 2006 by: Jessica Fraser
Tags: conflict of interest, Pfizer, National Institutes of Health

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(NewsTarget) A top researcher at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was charged Monday with criminal violation of federal conflict-of-interest laws by failing to disclose financial links with drug giant Pfizer, prosecutors said.

Pearson "Trey" Sunderland III, former chief of the Geriatric Psychiatry Branch of the NIH, was charged with one misdemeanor count for accepting $285,000 in undisclosed consulting fees from Pfizer. Sunderland -- who faces up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine -- has waived the grand jury indictment process, indicating he may consent to a plea agreement.

Prosecutors have charged Sunderland with failing to list the payments from Pfizer, which were made between 1997 and 2004. During NIH studies with Pfizer and another company in 1998 to find indicators of Alzheimer's disease in government-provided samples of cerebrospinal fluid, Sunderland allegedly agreed to accept $25,000 per year in consulting fees, as well as a $2,500 fee for attending one-day meetings with the company.

According to the charging document, Sunderland made a similar arrangement to receive an additional $25,000 per year from Pfizer during a separate study of two "biomarkers" believed to identify Alzheimer's disease in patients.

Though Sunderland's attorney Robert F. Muse said he had no comment on the case, he had previously said Sunderland had not attempted to conceal his outside work, and he a number of other NIH researchers saw financial disclosure forms as a "bureaucratic nuisance."

News of Sunderland's alleged lack of disclosure touched off a probe of ethical lapses by researchers at the NIH. Congressional investigators uncovered 44 NIH researchers who had accepted undisclosed money from drug and biotechnology companies. Last August -- one year after Sunderland's undisclosed finances were discovered -- the NIH passed new regulations barring employees from working for or owning stock in pharmaceutical or biotech companies.

According to consumer health advocate Mike Adams, author of "Take Back Your Health Power," conflicts of interest like Sunderland's are rife in government agencies, such as the FDA, where decision makers and experts -- especially those charged with approving drug therapies -- frequently have undisclosed financial conflicts.

"Drug company money has infected and corrupted every health-related department of the U.S. government," Adams said. "From regulatory departments like the FDA to research organizations like the NIH, pharmaceutical companies have used bribery and corruption to buy the influence they need to maximize profits.

"The prosecution of one NIH researcher is just the tip of the iceberg," he said.

Sunderland invoked his Fifth Amendment right protecting against self-incrimination when he was called to testify before a House subcommittee in June. His first hearing on the new charge is scheduled for Friday, Dec. 8 in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

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