By CRAIG SCHNEIDER
Federal officials are investigating Emory University and one of its prominent researchers to determine if either misled government agencies about the psychiatrist’s high-paying work with drug companies, officials said.
U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, who pressed for the investigation, sent a letter Tuesday to the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services outlining his concerns. He said Dr. Charles Nemeroff, an internationaly prominent psychiatrist, may have violated conflict of interest rules surrounding several grants that Emory received from the National Institutes of Health. Grassley’s letter also noted that Emory is required to report such conflicts to the NIH.
The investigation by the inspector general focuses on the concerns addressed in Grassley’s letter, said Jill Kozeny, spokeswoman for Grassley.
The probe also reflects concerns about the way in which Emory handled the reporting of Nemeroff’s earnings from drug companies and his potential conflicts of interest.
Nemeroff, an internationally known expert on depression and former chairman of Emory’s psychiatry department, was a prime target of Grassley’s congressional investigation into whether drug company payments to doctors and academics compromises medical research and scholarship.
Grassley, an Iowa Republican who is the ranking member of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, released documents last fall indicating that Nemeroff reported little of the money he earned through speeches he delivered for drug companies. He also received payment from drug companies whose products he was evaluating, officials said.
“But I have learned from the NIH that it was generally not aware of Dr. Nemeroff’s conflicts until I made the issue public last fall,” Grassley said in his letter.
Grassley also requested that the probe focus on whether Emory misled the NIH about the nature of Nemeroff’s talks for the drug company GlaxoSmithKline, which produces the antidepressant drug Paxil. Grassley has asserted that these talks were to promote the drug, while Emory has said they were for general education.
The NIH, an arm of the federal health and human services agency, requires universities to report potential conflicts of interest to ensure unbiased research.
Schools that violate the policies can face fines, a freezing of funds and loss of future grants. Overall, the NIH awarded Emory more than $251 million in funding last year — 61 percent of its total research grants.
As a result of its own investigation, Emory in December stripped Nemeroff of his department chairmanship and placed severe restrictions on his activities. Emory found that Nemeroff had violated the university’s policies by not reporting more than $800,000 in income from speeches for GlaxoSmithKline.
Nemeroff could not be reached for comment Thursday, but he has said, according to school officials, that he believed he was following school policy and was not required to report the speaking engagements.
Emory spokesman Ron Sauder said, “Emory has been fully cooperative with the National Institutes of Health and Sen. Grassley, and we will continue to be.”
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