Three Senior NIH Researchers To Leave Over Ethics Guidelines
Three senior researchers "at the center of a controversy" that has prompted NIH to implement new conflict-of-interest guidelines plan to leave the federal government, according to NIH officials, the Los Angeles Times reports (Willman, Los Angeles Times, 3/10). NIH Director Elias Zerhouni on Feb. 1 announced revised ethics guidelines that will restrict the ability of NIH employees to enter outside consulting agreements with pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, health insurers and health care providers.
The revised guidelines also will mandate that about 6,000 top NIH employees cannot hold stock in pharmaceutical or biotechnology companies and require current stockholders in the group to sell their shares. The move followed an investigation by the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations into hundreds of consulting payments from 20 pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies to a number of NIH employees.
An NIH review released last month concluded that statistical and clerical errors led the agency to improperly implicate more than half and possibly as many as 80% of about 100 scientists alleged to have violated conflict-of-interest guidelines as part of the House investigation. The revised guidelines will become final in early April after a 60-day comment period (California Healthline, 3/3).
The three senior researchers who plan to leave the federal government are H. Bryan Brewer, a vascular-disease specialist at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute; Lance Liotta, a laboratory chief at the National Cancer Institute; and Emanuel Petricoin, who is based at NIH but is employed by FDA.
Brewer, who plans to take a position at a Washington research institute, received NIH approval between 2001 and 2003 to accept about $114,000 in consulting payments from four companies that manufacture or develop anti-cholesterol medications. Brewer later helped draft NIH guidelines that recommended increased use of such treatments. In addition, Brewer in 2003 wrote a medical journal article that praised the anti-cholesterol medication Crestor but did not disclose that he had consulted for AstraZeneca, which manufactures the treatment.
Petricoin and Liotta, both of whom will take positions in the life-sciences division of the College of Arts and Sciences at George Mason University, testified in May 2004 as part of the House subcommittee investigation. Liotta, at the same time he led a collaboration between NIH and a Maryland company to develop an ovarian cancer test, received NIH approval to accept $70,000 in consulting payments from a rival company from late 2002 to mid-2004. Petricoin also received approval to accept consulting payments from the rival company. NIH last week referred Liotta -- as well as several other employees -- to the HHS Office of the Inspector General for investigation.
In related news, a group of NIH scientists on Wednesday proposed alternative ethics guidelines that would allow most NIH scientists to accept consulting payments and hold stock in pharmaceutical companies (Los Angeles Times, 3/10). The Assembly of Scientists, a group of 15 elected NIH researchers who represent employees throughout the agency, last month distributed a newsletter that said the revised ethics guidelines "substantially overreach and will severely and irreparably compromise the NIH's mission."
The newsletter continued, "These new regulations will discourage talented, innovative scientists from staying at or being recruited to the NIH and preclude scientists already at the NIH from participating as full members of the scientific community" (American Health Line, 3/3). The group on Wednesday said that the revised ethics guidelines are "much more severe" than those at other research institutions or companies and recommended that NIH employees send criticisms of the guidelines to HHS attorneys (Los Angeles Times, 3/10).