Emory University psychiatrist, Dr. Charles Nemeroff, has been accused of breaking federal research rules by taking in $2.8 million from a drug company and not reporting half of the income.
At the same time, Nemeroff, one of the nation’s most influential psychiatrists, was overseeing a National Institutes of Health study on five anti-depressants produced by the contributor, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) between 2000 and 2007.
Dr. Nemeroff is the focus of Senator Charles E. Grassley, who has published an open letter to Emory University in the Congressional Record.
Grassley is aggressively advocating transparency in the medical establishment and is promoting the Physician Payment Sunshine Act, which will require drug companies and medical device makers to disclose any payments of value above $500 to physicians.
Dr. Nemeroff is the most prominent figure to date who has been the focus in a series of disclosures concerning apparent conflicts-of-interest between drug companies and the doctors they work with.
Sen. Grassley says that Dr. Nemeroff consistently lied about the amount of money he was making from GSK. For example, in 2003 while Nemeroff claimed he received $15,000, GSK claims to have paid him more than $119,000.
The New York Times reports that while Dr. Nemeroff signed a letter in July 2004, promising Emory he would earn less than $10,000 a year from GSK to comply with federal rules, he was at the Four Season Resort in Jackson Hole, Wyoming earning $3,000, part of the $170,000 he earned that year from GSK.
Emory University says in a statement, Dr. Nemeroff has properly disclosed his financial relationships with pharmaceutical companies. Emory says the contents of the letter are “serious allegations” and is conducting its own internal investigation to see whether the University’s policies against payments are being followed.
Sen. Grassley is conducting a larger conflict-of-interest Congressional inquiry to determine whether the current system for tracking financial relationships is working.
“After questioning about 20 doctors and research institutions, it looks like problems with transparency are everywhere. The current system for tracking financial relationships isn’t working” said Senator Grassley.
Dr. Nemeroff has volunteered to step down as chair of his department, effective immediately, pending resolution of the issue. A woman who answered the phone in his office, told IB News he was busy seeing patients.
In a statement, Nemeroff said:
"To the best of my knowledge, I have followed the appropriate University regulations concerning financial disclosures. I have dedicated my career to translating research findings into improvements in clinical practice in patients with severe mental illness. I will cooperate fully and work with Emory to respond to the alleged conflicts of interest issues raised by Senator Grassley and his staff."
In June, Sen. Grassley reported that Dr. Joseph Biederman, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and two of his colleagues at Harvard, failed to report over three million dollars in payments they received from drug makers, while promoting the same drug makers psychiatric drugs for children.
Still, universities are in charge of policing themselves. Dr. Nemeroff was investigated by Emory in 2004 for outside consulting arrangements, but the university reportedly took little action.
The downside for any university is it faces the loss of federal funding by the National Institutes of Health if conflict-of-interest rules are violated. Emory has a portfolio of grants reported to be $190 million in 2005.
But there is some upside for a university to ignore disclosure rules.
In a letter, now part of a Congressional hearing, Dr. Nemeroff reminded Emory that he sat on a dozen corporate advisory boards, including Smith-Kline Beecham Pharmaceuticals that donated an endowed chair to the university.
Nemeroff also said in the letter that Janssen Pharmaceuticals, AstraZeneca, and Bristol-Myers were likely to make a contribution as a result of his connections, and that Wyeth-Ayerst Pharmaceuticals has funded a career development program at Emory.
Merck and Eli Lilly say they plan to disclose payments online beginning next year.
“Everyone is concerned,” said Dr. James Scully of the Council of Medical Specialty Societies, said to the New York Times. The organization’s 30 members represent more than a half-million doctors. #