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Emory Psychiatrist Didn't Disclose Drug Company Payments

Oct 6, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP
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An Emory University psychiatrist who was paid more than $2 million by pharmaceutical companies failed to report a substantial portion of that income while working on government-funded drug researcher.  According to documents the university furnished to congressional investigators, Dr. Charles B. Nemeroff did not disclose $1.2 million of that income to the school, in violation of federal research rules.  Nemeroff if one of the nation's top psychiatric researchers, and according to The New York Times, is the most prominent person named in Grassley's probe thus far.

Among  the documents obtained by congressional investigators is a letter signed by Nemeroff dated July 15, 2004 in which he promises Emory administrators that he would earn less than $10,000 a year from GlaxoSmithKline to comply with federal rules.  But in that same year, Nemeroff actually earned $170,000 from Glaxo for giving talks about Paxil and other drugs the company made.  

Nemeroff's failure to fully disclose his financial relationship with the drug industry is just the latest revelation in a probe led by Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa).  Universities are supposed to monitor conflicts when their researchers receive government grants.  According to The New York Times, Grassley has been asking some of the nation’s leading researchers to provide their conflict-of-interest disclosures, and is comparing those documents with records of actual payments from drug companies.  

Grassley is a sponsor of  the Physician Payment Sunshine Act, which would require drug and device companies to publicly list payments to doctors that exceed $500.  The Senator has already discovered many instances where researchers' disclosures did not match the drug companies' records.   Harvard, Brown and Standford universities are just a few of the institutions where discrepancies have been found.

In a letter to Emory President James W. Wagner dated last Thursday, Grassley said that from 2000 through 2006, Nemeroff received just over $960,000 from Glaxo, but reported to the university that he received no more than $35,000. From 2003 until this past summer, Nemeroff was the  primary investigator on a federally-funded research project conducted jointly by Emory, Glaxo and the National Institute of Mental health that examined five Glaxo drugs considered for use as possible antidepressants.

According to federal research rules, universities are supposed to inform the National Institutes of Health (NIH) when a researcher receives annual income from a drug company totaling more than $10,000.  According to documents obtained by congressional investigators, Nemeroff would have exceeded the NIH's $10,000 limit in 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006.  Emory should have either taken steps to deal with the conflict or to remove Nemeroff as the investigator.  

But Emory took Nemeroff's word that his drug company income did not exceed NIH limits.  This despite the fact that Emory’s conflict of interest committee investigated Nemeroff in 2004, and submitted a report to the university that detailed multiple “serious” and “significant” violations of university procedures intended to protect patients.  At the time, he had consulting arrangements with about a dozen companies, including Merck & Co., Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. and Eli Lilly & Co.  Even then, Emory took no action against Nemeroff, nor did it subject his financial ties with drug companies to further scrutiny.

This is not the first time that Nemeroff's ties to the pharmaceutical industry have raised questions.  In 2006, he stepped down as editor of the journal Neuropsychopharmacology after failing to disclose financial ties to Cyberonic's Inc., the maker of a depression-treating device that received a favorable review in a paper he co-authored.  At the time, Nemeroff blamed the omission on a "clerical error".  

On Friday night, the day after Grassley's letter to the university's president was made public, Emory announced that Nemeroff would “voluntarily step down as chairman of the department, effective immediately, pending resolution of these issues.”

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