Financial Conflicts between Doctors and Drug Companies Taint Research System

Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) recently released records showing that a prominent psychiatrist whose work led to an exponential increase in the diagnosis of childhood bipolar disorder earned at least $1.6 million from the makers of drugs used to treat this very disorder. As The New York Times reported yesterday, Dr. Joseph Biederman, of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, may have violated federal research rules by failing to disclose the extent of his payments from drug companies over the years.

Sadly, such blatant conflicts of interest are all too common. In a 1999 article in The Boston Globe, I wrote about another prominent psychiatrist, Dr. Martin Keller, chief of psychiatry at Brown University, who had earned more than a million dollars in 1997 and 1998 from the pharmaceutical industry, much of it from companies whose drugs he was studying and touting at conferences and in medical journals. In 1998, for instance, the same year that Keller published positive findings about Zoloft in the treatment of depression, Keller earned $218,000 in personal payments alone from Pfizer, the maker of Zoloft; he also received $77,400 from Bristol Myers Squibb, the maker of Serzone, the same year he was lead author on a positive study about Serzone, an antidepressant that has since been taken off the market because it causes liver failure. Keller, oddly enough, did not report any income from SmithKline Beecham on his 1998 return, a copy of which was obtained by The Globe.

It was not until I began researching my book Side Effects: A Prosecutor, a Whistleblower and a Bestselling Antidepressant on Trial that I discovered that Keller had indeed earned personal income from SmithKline Beecham (now GlaxoSmithKline), in 1998 as well as subsequent years. He admitted as much under oath in a deposition in a lawsuit against GlaxoSmithKline, the maker of the antidepressant Paxil, in September 2006. Why is this important? To begin with, Keller was the principal investigator of a major multi-center study of Paxil, which purported to conclude that Paxil was more effective than placebo in treating depression in adolescents. Just as with Biederman, Keller’s acceptance of money from the maker of a drug he was studying constitutes a blatant conflict of interest. And just like Biederman, Keller failed to disclose these conflicts to the federal agencies that were rewarding him millions of dollars in research grants. Equally important, if as Keller himself acknowledged under oath, he received payments from SmithKline in 1998, why didn’t that income appear on his 1998 tax return?

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