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Charlie Neibergall/AP
U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa

Sen. Chuck Grassley Accuses Emory Researcher of Conflict of Interest

October 16, 2008 09:00 AM
by Emily Coakley
The Senate Finance Committee’s ranking member is exploring whether Dr. Charles Nemeroff accepted more money from pharmaceutical companies than he reported.

Federal Funding Frozen

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Two years into a five-year research grant, the National Institutes of Health has stopped sending money to Emory University for a $9.3 million research project into depression, reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The project’s chief researcher, Dr. Charles B. Nemeroff, has stepped down amid concern that he “has collected millions of dollars in speaking and consulting fees from drug companies whose products he’s reviewed and promoted.”

He is still teaching and seeing patients, though he has temporarily “stepped aside” as the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences chairman.

A statement issued by Emory includes this quote by Nemeroff: “To the best of my knowledge, I have followed the appropriate university regulations concerning financial disclosures.”

According to the Los Angeles Times, Sen. Chuck Grassley, ranking member of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, said Nemeroff “consistently misrepresented the amount of money he received from [GlaxoSmithKline].”

Nemeroff said in 2003 that he received no more than $15,000 from the company; however, GSK reports paying him $119,756. The year before that, he also reported receiving no more than $15,000, but the company says he was paid more than $230,000.

The AJC notes that federal and university standards require researchers to disclose payments to prevent conflicts of interest.

Opinion & Analysis: Nemeroff a symbol of the times; busy schedule; who’s next?

Nemeroff hasn’t been the only academic the Finance Committee has scrutinized, said Judith Warner on her New York Times blog. Timothy Wilens and Joseph Biederman of Harvard Medical School were accused of underreporting payments from drug companies. There have also been conflict-of-interest concerns associated with Stanford University’s psychiatry department chairman, Alan Schatzberg.

She called Nemeroff’s situation “yet another iteration of the ever-unfolding saga of greed and how the deregulation of absolutely everything has brought our country to this painful season of reckoning.”

Ed Silverman at Pharmalot, citing a schedule provided by the Senate Finance Committee, said Nemeroff spoke at all sorts of engagements around the country that GSK paid for. “[T]here are, in fact, 39 pages listing the various places where Nemeroff appeared talking up Glaxo meds,” Silverman said. He added, “It also raises a question – when he did find time to do anything else?”

Christe Bruderlin-Nelson, writing about Nemeroff at FiercePharma, said, “It will be interesting to see which universities, researchers and drug companies Grassley picks for his next examples.”

Key Players: Charles Nemeroff; Chuck Grassley

A profile of Nemeroff in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution paints two different pictures of him. Some critics call him “Dr. Bling-Bling,” and a “shill,” and vow to never believe anything he writes.

But others, such as Dr. Jeffrey A. Lieberman, Columbia University’s Psychiatry Department Chairman, said, “Overall, Dr. Nemeroff has been a seminal figure and leader in the field of academic psychiatry, both through his research as well as his other scholarly activities.”

Nemeroff is a New York City native who became a medical doctor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where he also earned a Ph.D. in neurobiology, according to Emory. Before he joined Emory’s faculty in 1991, he taught at Duke University. His university biography lists his numerous awards, and says he “has published more than 750 research reports and reviews.”

Sen. Grassley was a farmer, assembly line worker and state legislator before being elected to represent Iowa in the U.S. Senate in 1980. He is the 15th most senior member of the body, according to his official Web site. He was chairman of the Finance Committee in 2001, and then from 2003 to 2007.

Related Topic: Scrutiny over medical device payments

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