Senior NIH scientist faulted

Sunderland improperly shared thousands of human tissue samples with drug company for $285,000 in consulting fees

By | June 14, 2006

A top NIH official gave Pfizer thousands of samples in exchange for $285,000 in consulting fees, according to a Congressional report released yesterday Trey Sunderland, chief of the Geriatric Psychiatry Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), improperly transferred 3,200 vials of human spinal fluid and 388 tubes of plasma collected for Alzheimer?s research, the 25-page study by the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations said. Sunderland received more than $600,000 in outside consulting and speaking fees from Pfizer from 1998 to 2004 without prior government disclosure or approval. A review by NIH?s Office of Management Assessment found that Sunderland ?engaged in serious misconduct, in violation of HHS ethics rules and Federal law and regulation,? the report stated. Sunderland has not been charged with any crime and remains an NIH employee and member of the Public Health Service Corps. Obtaining the NIH tissue samples ? a ?unique historical collection? from a multi-year longitudinal study of more than 500 Alzheimer?s patients and their families -- was the ?primary reason? behind Pfizer?s interest in collaborating with Sunderland in 1998, the committee report stated. Procuring the tissue samples alone cost the government $6.4 million, reported committee staffers, who spent a year investigating the matter. There was ?no evidence? that Pfizer was aware of any questionable activity on Sunderland's part, the report noted. Neither Sunderland nor his attorney, Robert Muse, responded to requests from The Scientist yesterday for comment. The report was released yesterday at the start of two days of subcommittee hearings on NIH?s handling of human tissue samples. More than 660 NIH labs maintain repositories of human body fluids and tissues, yet the agency lacks a formal inventory control or tracking system and has ?no uniform, centralized, and mandatory authority? for handling these samples, the report said. ?It would really be a shame if we find out that the National Institutes of Health has more control over its paper clips and trash cans than it has over its human tissue samples,? said committee chairman Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) in a statement released yesterday. The House investigation into Sunderland?s tissue sample transfer began in April 2005 after Susan Molchan, program director for Alzheimer?s disease research at the National Institute of Aging, raised concerns ?about what happened to the more than 95% of the unused spinal fluid samples left in the freezer? at NIMH, according to the committee report. Sunderland?s outside activities first came to light during a 2004 subcommittee investigation into consulting practices at NIH. Following a series of media reports and congressional inquiries, NIH banned all outside consulting with biotech, pharmaceutical, and medical devices companies in February 2005. Ted Agres Links within this article Trey Sunderland Staff Report of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. T. Agres, ?NIH needs ?drastic changes,? The Scientist, June 23, 2004 T. Agres, ?NIH bans all consulting,? The Scientist, February 2, 2005


June 14, 2006

Of course Pfizer would deny any knowledge of Sunderland's moral turpitude. Having paid out more than 6 times America's average wage and receiving samples which the government paid $1.6 million to collect and the corporation idoes not even suspect wrong doing! Are we all driving turnip trucks?
Avatar of: W. Ross Tracey

W. Ross Tracey

Posts: 1

June 15, 2006

I would be very interested in knowing what evidence Mr. Mednolusky has to support his allegations. Pharmaceutical companies and academic investigators mutually engage in numerous collaborative and consulting agreements, and it should be a reasonable assumption that those investigators abide by the rules of their institutions. The committee report on Dr. Sunderland?s conduct was built on an exhaustive review of factual information. Reactions to the report such as Mr. Mednolusky?s are a disturbing indicator of how popular thinking, which includes distrust of the pharmaceutical industry, overrides this information; it?s all the more disturbing to see this on the website of a science-based magazine. Discussion around topics such as this one is important, but we need to be careful not to let it disintegrate into emotion, rhetoric, and fashionable thought. And yes, I am a scientist who works in the pharmaceutical industry.
Avatar of: Robert Garofalo

Robert Garofalo

Posts: 1

June 16, 2006

While Mr. Mednolusky would like to portray Pfizer as villain here, a quote from the Report of the House Investigative Committee clearly states: "It should be noted that the Committee staff found no evidence that Pfizer had any knowledge relating to the questionable conduct of Dr. Sunderland in connection with the April 1998 MTA and the subsequent shipment of samples." \n\nPlain and simple.

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