The latest conflict of interest probe initiated by the Senate Finance Committee focuses on the multiple affiliations held by Marvin Konstam,a Tufts University medical professor who is also medical director at Orqis, a device maker, and an outside contractor with the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
In a letter to the National Institutes of Health, Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Senator and ranking Republican on the committee, writes that he is concerned Konstam was allowed to remain "on the staff of Tufts University School of Medicine and Tufts-New England Medical Center, while also acting as a high profile advisor and advocate for a cardiac device company."
Last week, for instance, Orqis issued a press release in which Konstam breathlessly endorsed one of its products, a minimally invasive device for helping heart-failure patients. He was identified as a Tufts University medicine professor.
"Anyone would be confused about who is Dr. Konstam's employer," Grassley wrote to NIH director Elias Zerhouni in seeking info about payments to Konstam. "Tufts? The National Heart Lung and Blood Institute? Orqis?"
At issue is oversight of federally funded researchers, and the extent to which their ties to drug and device makers could influence research. And in this case, Grassley also suggests the NIH may be trying to avoid conflict-of-interest policies by hiring people as contractors rather than full-time employees.
In a statement yesterday given to The Boston Globe, Zerhouni's office said, "We will work closely with Senator Grassley and his staff to address the concerns and questions" in the letter, and noted that Konstam has been on a one-year advisory assignment while technically remaining a Tufts employee and that "he is not authorized to approve or make any grant or contract awards or conduct research" at the heart and lung institute. [Our thought: So this means what? Temporary employees can have conflicts?]
Tufts Medical Center told the paper that Konstam, formerly chief of cardiology, was traveling and unable to comment, but it confirmed that he is still affiliated with Tufts and will be returning as of Jan. 1. "Dr. Konstam recently accepted our offer to return to Tufts Medical Center as chief physician executive of our new cardiovascular center," Tufts said.