Three days before Christmas, Emory University gave its long-time chief of psychiatry a nice holiday gift: in return for his stepping down as psychiatry head, university officials are allowing Charles Nemeroff to stay at the university as a full professor despite his failure to disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal payments from GlaxoSmith Kline, the maker of Paxil. According to Pharmalot, Emory justified its milk-toast action by saying that a review of Nemeroff’s speeches supported his contention that his lectures were not product-specific but rather limited to general medical topics such as depression and bipolar disorder.
Somehow I seriously doubt that. Why? Because over the years Nemeroff has most definitely given product-specific lectures on behalf of drug companies. As I note in Side Effects, Nemeroff spoke on behalf of Eli Lilly, the maker of Prozac, during the pivotal 1991 FDA hearing on concerns that Prozac increased the risk of sucidal thoughts and behaviors among patients taking the SSRI antidepressant. (At the time, Nemeroff had lucrative consulting arrangements with Eli Lilly and also owned stock in the Indianapolis-based drug company). As part of his presentation to the FDA, Nemeroff specifically talked about the available research on Prozac and other SSRI antidepressants (including Paxil) and went so far as to dismiss case reports then emerging about the suicidal risks of these drugs. According to people who attended that hearing, Nemeroff’s “elegant” and very product-specific lecture that day helped convince the FDA advisory board to dismiss concerns about these drugs’ side effects. As a result, it took the federal agency another 13 years to put black box warnings about the suicidal risks on Prozac, Paxil and other antidepressants.
In concluding its investigation (back story), Emory said it found no evidence that Nemeroff’s consulting activities biased scientific research. It seems obvious that university officials weren’t looking very hard.
For now, at least, the university will be keeping Nemeroff on a tight leash — he has to get prior approval for any and all outside speaking and consulting engagements and is not allowed to be involved in any NIH-funded research for at least two years. By then, hopefully, Congress will have passed the Physician Payment Sunshine Act, so when Nemeroff does start doing research again on the taxpayer’s dollar, his take from the drug companies will be a matter of public record.