Conflicts Investigation Turns to Stanford

A Senate investigation of conflicts of interest turned a spotlight this week on Stanford University. Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) charged that Stanford has inadequately monitored reporting by a faculty psychiatrist who owns $6 million worth of stock in a company that's involved in a government-funded study he oversees.

Grassley and others have been leaning on universities and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to monitor potential conflicts of interest among NIH-funded researchers more closely (ScienceNOW, 18 January). Last summer, Grassley began asking about 20 universities for conflict-of-interest forms filed by their faculty members, then seeing if they matched up with payments reported by drug companies. Earlier this month, Grassley charged that three Harvard University psychiatrists failed to report some of their $3.6 million income since 2000 from industry consulting, possibly in violation of federal regulations.

Yesterday, Grassley revealed that he is investigating Alan Schatzberg, chair of the department of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine. Schatzberg owns stock in a company called Corcept Therapeutics that is testing the abortion drug mifepristone for treating depression. He is also the lead investigator on an NIH-funded study at Stanford of mifepristone. But he is not directly involved in recruiting or testing patients for the study, and he discloses his financial interests in papers and talks, according to a 2006 article in the San Jose Mercury News.

Grassley, however, questions Stanford's oversight of this conflict. In comments and a letter to Stanford published on 23 June in the Congressional Record, he notes that Stanford required that Schatzberg disclose stock valued at more than $100,000. But Stanford didn't require him to report profit of $109,000 from the sale of some shares in 2005. Nor did Stanford require him to inform the school that his remaining 2 million shares are now worth over $6 million. "Obviously, $6 million is a dramatically higher number than $100,000 and I am concerned that Stanford may not have been able to adequately monitor the degree of Dr. Schatzberg's conflicts of interest with its current disclosure policies," Grassley writes in a letter to Stanford University President John Hennessy.

Is Stanford's policy flawed? Eric Campbell, a sociologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston who studies financial conflicts in academia, says "in some ways it doesn't matter" because the $100,000 is already way above the $10,000 threshold in federal regulations that triggers a review and management of any conflict, as was done at Stanford earlier. On the other hand, Campbell says, "in the eyes of the public," a potential conflict of $6 million is bigger than a $100,000 one. The key issue, he says, is whether the institution is actively monitoring conflicts involving its own financial interests. Stanford, which is known for having especially tough conflict-of-interest standards, was preparing a statement as ScienceNOW went to press.

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