This was bound to happen. US Senator Chuck Grassley has asked the National Institutes of Health to justify a decision earlier this month to award a $2 million research grant to Charles Nemeroff, the University of Miami medical school psychiatry chair, who has been at the center of a far-reaching probe into conflicts of interest involving academic researchers and the pharmaceutical industry.
As reported last week, the recent grant to Nemeroff was made three years after the former Emory University psychiatry department chair was sanctioned for failing to disclose that he had accepted $1.2 million in payments from GlaxoSmithKline (back story). At the time, he was also the primary investigator for a National Institutes of Health study of the Paxil antidepressant, which is sold by the drugmaker.
Those details emerged thanks to a Grassley investigation into undisclosed conflicts over concerns that such relationships may unduly influence medical research and practice. In response, the NIH suspended a $9.3 million, five-year grant that Nemeroff held for a depression study at Emory and the university barred him from applying for NIH funding for two years (back story). Nemeroff left Emory for the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, prompting concern that he would become eligible for new grants since the ban did not extend to his new position.
The probe was later extended to the National Institute of Mental Health after director Tom Insel was found to have assured the University of Miami that Nemeroff would again be eligible for research grants. Despite the controversy, the NIH last year gutted a provision in proposed conflict-of-interest rules that would have required universities to disclose financial ties between academic researchers and industry on publicly accessible web sites.
And so, Grassley is ticked off about the latest grant. "Although NIH has recently revamped its conflict of interest guidelines, this decision risks sending the wrong message to physicians seeking or performing federally funded research," he writes the NIH director Francis Collins in a letter today. "...It’s troubling that NIH continues to provide limited federal dollars to individuals who have previously had grant funding suspended for failure to disclose conflicts of interest and even more troubling that the administration chose not to require full, open, and public disclosure of financial interests on a public website."
Grassley, in fact, goes on to note that Nemeroff remains under investigation by the US Department of Health & Human Services Office of the Inspector General, which is working with the US Department of Justice. The OIG investigation was completed, he addes, but there is no word yet on whether the DOJ will take any action before releasing the OIG report. "So, there has been no final resolution by DOJ or public finding by HHS OIG related to the investigation of Dr. Nemeroff," Grassley fumes, "yet, NIH awarded him another grant."
Consequently, Grassley wants Collins to explain whether his staff was aware Nemeroff is under federal investigation and, if so, why the NIH awarded the grant and whether the issue was discussed with the HHS OIG or the DOJ. And if there was no discussion, why not? He also wants to know about the peer reviewers for the Nemeroff grant and if they were aware of potential conflicts and the federal investigation. And again, if not, why not? And finally, Grassley asks if the the NIH has safeguards and procedures to detect and deny grant applicants who have been convicted of a felony? (here is the letter).