Charles Nemeroff, an Atlanta psychiatrist who was the subject of a Senate investigation concerning huge sums he received from drug companies, has been named chairman of the psychiatry department at the University of Miami.
Last year Nemeroff, as the top psychiatrist at Emory University, was the focus of an investigation by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who said he was concerned about the millions the psychiatrist received from drug companies while conducting supposedly unbiased research for the National Institutes of Health on drugs made by the companies he was receiving money from.
On Thursday, Pascal Goldschmidt, dean of UM medical school, called Nemeroff ``an exceptional psychiatrist and an exceptional scientist who has one issue in which he recognizes he made a mistake,'' in not telling Emory how much he was getting from drug makers.
Goldschmidt said he had read investigative reports from Emory about Nemeroff's activities and Emory found nothing to indicate that payments the psychiatrist received had in any way influenced his research results.
Elsewhere, opinions are divided.
The former head of psychiatry at Duke University told The Miami Herald Thursday that Nemeroff was ``economical with the truth'' and his work can't be trusted, while the leader of the Columbia University psychiatry program said Nemeroff was a top-flight scientist and he had never seen any bias in his work.
For his own part, Nemeroff, 60, said he was excited to be coming to Miami. ``I think it's going to be a top-10 school.''
Nemeroff's appointment comes at a time when healthcare reform bills in both the House and Senate have sections requiring healthcare providers to publicly reveal their payments to doctors.
In October 2008, the psychiatrist's activities made the front page of The New York Times after Grassley investigators found that Nemeroff -- ``one of the nation's most influential psychiatrists,'' according to The Times -- had received $2.8 million in consulting deals with drug makers over seven years and failed to report at least $1.2 million of that to Emory.
Based on Grassley's complaints, Nemeroff's work on a mayor NIH grant was suspended and Emery asked him to step down as chair of psychiatry while it studied his conduct.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services had launched an investigation into Nemeroff's activities. An OIG spokesman said it never confirms nor denies investigations. Nemeroff said he knew nothing about OIG looking at him.
According to published reports, the psychiatrist received between $800,000 to $1.2 million from GlaxoSmithKline while leading a major study into mood disorder drugs, including ones made by GSK.
Nemeroff said Thursday that the news reports had not made clear that his talks were on GSK drugs now on the market, while his research funded by NIH involved basic lab studies of GSK chemical compounds that were years away from market. That work did not promote GSK products, he told The Herald.
But Bernard Carroll, former head of psychiatry at Duke University and once Nemeroff's boss, said parts of Nemeroff's work involved Paxil, a GSK antidepressant. ``Basically, he was doing basic science pimping for Paxil to produce talking points,'' Carroll told The Herald in an e-mail Thursday. ``All he ever produced was speculation but that was enough to satisfy Glaxo marketing. . . . I have been exposing his shenanigans for some years.''
Jeffrey Lieberman, head of psychiatry at Columbia University, praised Nemeroff as a leading expert in ``basic neuroscience,'' studying underlying pathologies and proteins in the brain that cause mental illness. He said he had never detected ``any undue influence or bias'' in Nemeroff's research.
However, all the academics interviewed Thursday acknowledged that large payments to researchers were a concern. ``Of course, it creates problems,'' Carroll said.
At UM, Goldschmidt said it was important for researchers and pharmaceutical companies to work together to develop better drugs. He said limits of how much researchers should be allowed to receive are still being debated.
In June, the Pew Prescription Project gave UM a ``B'' on a scorecard designed to measure ethical policies on professors' relationship with the pharmaceutical industry.
UM is now in the process of strengthening its reporting requirements, said Goldschmidt, so that all outside professional work must be reported -- and the results will eventually be posted online for the public to see.
Those requirements will apply to Nemeroff, who starts at UM on Dec. 1, and all other medical school staffers.
In the past, Goldschmidt said, there was debate whether professors needed to report fees from drug makers for giving continuing medical education (CME) talks, which are supposed to be non-promotional. That became an issue in Nemeroff's case in Atlanta.
In an interview Thursday, Nemeroff said in retrospect he should have declared the CME payments he received from drug makers, but he viewed Emory standards as not requiring such revelations.
LETTER OF SUPPORT
In a letter to Grassley last December, Emory officials wrote: ``We do not believe that Dr. Nemeroff's participation in the compensated speaking arrangements with GSK in any way biased the research conducted under the grant.''
The letter said Nemeroff's talks on behalf of GSK were ``focused on medical education and were not product specific or promotional. . . . As you alleged, Dr. Nemeroff did not disclose substantial speaking fees from pharmaceutical companies to Emory. Under federal regulations and Emory's policies, we believe he should have done so, although both the regulations and our policies could have been clearer.''
Grassley responded in a letter that his staff's research found that Nemeroff's talks were promoting GSK products -- not educational -- and should have been reported.
Tom Johnson, former president of the CNN network and former publisher of The Los Angeles Times, said Thursday he was part of an Emory advisory board that examined Nemeroff's behavior and the university's ethics policies. The policies were ``confusing,'' Johnson told The Herald. They have since been modified.