(NaturalNews) It has been revealed that an Emory University psychiatrist concealed half a million dollars that he was paid by GlaxoSmithKline while conducting research on the company's drugs, supporting allegations that such failure by doctors to report conflict-of-interest is widespread.
An investigation by Sen. Charles Grassley, ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, uncovered that researcher Charles Nemeroff was paid $2.8 million by GlaxoSmithKline between 2000 and 2007, while he was leading a collaborative Glaxo-National Institutes of Health (NIH) study into five of the company's antidepressant drugs. In violation of both university and federal rules, however, Nemeroff failed to report much of this income to Emory.
The Senate Finance Committee is responsible for overseeing federal health care programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.
According to Grassley's investigation, for example, Nemeroff reported receiving less than $15,000 from the company in 2003, while GlaxoSmithKline documents record payments of $119,756. In 2002, Nemeroff had also reported receiving less than $15,000, when he had actually received $232,248.
Grassley revealed the information to Emory in an open letter published in the Congressional Register. The university responded that "[it] take[s] this matter very seriously and [is] working diligently to determine whether our policies have been observed consistently."
Nemeroff has denied any wrongdoing, saying, "To the best of my knowledge, I have followed the appropriate university regulations concerning financial disclosures."
According to the university, however, the researcher has "voluntarily step[ped] down as chairman of the department, effective immediately, pending resolution of these issues." The NIH has frozen all further payments on a $9.3 million grant that Emory had received to study GlaxoSmithKline drugs under Nemeroff's leadership, also pending some resolution of the case.
The Nemeroff revelations immediately reignited the controversy over the conflict of interest produced when researchers accept consulting fees and gifts from the companies whose products they are investigating. Emory is creating a central office to handle conflict-of-interest disclosures, while the University of Minnesota Medical School is considering a policy to ban its doctors from accepting any gifts from drug companies whatsoever.
According to Grassley, the current system, under which universities are solely responsible for preventing conflicts of interest, is in need of serious revision - in large part because doctors regularly lie on their university disclosure forms.
"After questioning about 20 doctors and research institutions, it looks like problems with transparency are everywhere," Grassley said. "The current system for tracking financial relationships isn't working."
Other notable conflicts of interest uncovered by Grassley's investigation include the cases of a pair of prominent Harvard child psychiatrists who failed to report hundreds of thousands of dollars over a seven-year period, and a researcher from the University of Cincinnati who reported total payments of $100,000 between 2005 and 2007, when she had actually been paid $235,000 from AztraZeneca alone.
In another case, Stanford University researcher Alan F. Schatzberg, president-elect of the American Psychiatric Association, was revealed to be a major shareholder in a drug development company, owning $4.8 million in stock. Although Schatzberg had complied with all of Stanford's disclosure policies, the case spurred the university to revise its rules.
Donations from the pharmaceutical industry are responsible for approximately 30 percent of the American Psychiatric Association's yearly budget of $62.5 million.
Grassley and Sen. Herb Kohl have sponsored a bill called the Physician Payment Sunshine Act, which would shift the disclosure burden to drug and medical device manufacturers. Under the proposed law, companies would be required to report any payments or fees over $500 a year. Eli Lilly and Merck have announced that even if the bill does not become law, they will voluntarily begin such a practice in 2009.