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Congress Expands Probe of NIH Ethics

A congressional committee yesterday expanded its ethics investigation of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to cover consulting by two scientists at NIH and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and an award to a former institute director. The probe has prompted the FDA to review its own consulting agreements.

The hearing followed a fiery one last week at which the House subcommittee on oversight and investigations slammed NIH Director Elias Zerhouni's plan for reforming NIH's ethics policies as inadequate (ScienceNOW, 13 May). This week, the panel turned to activities by the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) Lance Liotta and FDA's Emanuel Petricoin. The duo are pioneers in using proteomics to detect ovarian cancer. The subcommittee, however, questioned their consulting work for Biospect, a San Francisco-based proteomics company, while NIH also had an agreement for joint research with another company working on the ovarian cancer test.

After the company, Maryland-based Correlogic Systems, complained about Liotta's relationship with Biospect, NCI reviewed the case. It found "a lack of evidence of overlap," testified NCI deputy director Anna Barker, since Correlogic was focusing on software and Biospect on hardware. But last week, Liotta and Petricoin ended their Biospect relationship. Petricoin said he was informed that Biospect is on list of FDA-regulated companies, which made it off-limits. And Liotta told lawmakers that he learned the company's mission "had changed" and it was now doing similar work.

Greenwood, however, suggested that NCI and FDA should have informed Correlogic earlier and gained its consent before approving the scientists' agreements with Biospect, which he called "destructive" to the partnership. "This isn't transparency. This is an outrage," Greenwood said.

Greenwood also voiced "serious appearance questions" about a $40,000 award to former NCI director Richard Klausner from the University of Pittsburgh shortly after he approved a $300,000 payment to the university as part of a legal settlement. HHS lawyer Ed Swindell suggested the award was approved after the HHS general counsel, Harriet Rabb, had instructed her staff to allow questionable activities as long as they passed legal muster. Rabb, now at Rockefeller University, did not testify.

The committee did applaud Zerhouni for taking steps to increase disclosures. For example, this week Zerhouni made it mandatory for NIH staff to report past consulting agreements. "We are starting to achieve positive changes," said Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-TX).