NIH Director Says New Rules on Conflicts May Need to Be Toughened Further

June 10, 2010

The director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis S. Collins, is considering making some quick revisions to his long-awaited plan for toughening NIH conflict-of-interest regulations, following a Chronicle article highlighting his agency's handling of one of the most prominent examples of a researcher who failed to fully disclose payments from industry.

The Chronicle reported Monday that Thomas R. Insel, while leading a just-concluded yearlong NIH effort to bolster the agency's policies against financial conflicts of interest, was also working to help the tainted researcher, Charles B. Nemeroff, land a new job at the University of Miami.

Addressing his agency's advisory board Thursday, Dr. Collins said the proposed new rules, which are nearing final implementation, may now need to be changed to ensure that any penalties or sanctions against a researcher remain in effect if the researcher moves to another institution.

Dr. Collins also said that as a result of the revelations in the Chronicle article, the NIH is reviewing its policies on who can participate in the scientific panels that advise the agency regarding which grant applications should be approved for federal financing. Dr. Nemeroff was allowed to remain on those panels even after his employer at the time, Emory University, found in 2008 that he had violated conflict-of-interest rules and responded by barring him from seeking new NIH grants for two years.

Dr. Nemeroff, now a professor and chairman of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Miami, is one of several high-profile doctors found to have given speeches or written articles in medical journals extolling drugs or products made by companies that had paid them money or stock benefits that they did not report to their universities. Yet Dr. Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, helped Dr. Nemeroff secure his new job at Miami by assuring the university that if it hired Dr. Nemeroff, he would be fully eligible for NIH grants. He also affirmed Dr. Nemeroff's continued eligibility to serve on the NIH's grant-review panels, and responded with encouragement after Dr. Nemeroff reported by e-mail that he was making immediate progress at Miami in obtaining new NIH grants.

Dr. Collins acknowledged Thursday he hasn't yet determined whether or how he could carry out some of the changes he has proposed. Although he talked about maintaining sanctions against a researcher who moves to a new institution, the NIH now penalizes only institutions, not individual researchers. In the case of Dr. Nemeroff, the two-year ban on his eligibility for NIH grants was imposed by Emory under pressure from the NIH officials but not through any mandatory system of penalties.

An NIH spokesman had no immediate response on Thursday to the question of whether Dr. Collins retains confidence in Dr. Insel.