Three senior researchers at the center of a controversy at the National Institutes of Health over moonlighting for the pharmaceutical industry are leaving the government, officials said.
The departures come at a time when the NIH is implementing tougher conflict-of-interest rules that prohibit all agency employees from accepting consulting fees, stock options or any compensation from the industry.
The three departing researchers are: Dr. H. Bryan Brewer Jr., a vascular-disease specialist at the NIH's National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; Dr. Lance A. Liotta, a laboratory chief at the National Cancer Institute; and Liotta's research partner, Emanuel F. "Chip" Petricoin III, who has been based at NIH but is employed by the Food and Drug Administration.
Brewer, 66, is taking a position with a research institute in the Washington area, according to an e-mail distributed Tuesday to agency employees. From 2001 to 2003, Brewer accepted about $114,000 in consulting fees from four companies making or developing cholesterol medicines, government and corporate records show. His paid arrangements with the companies were approved in advance by the NIH, an agency spokeswoman said.
As part of his federal role, Brewer helped draft national guidelines urging more aggressive use of drugs to lower cholesterol. In an article published Aug. 21, 2003, in the American Journal of Cardiology, Brewer extolled the safety and effectiveness of a new cholesterol drug, Crestor, without disclosing to readers that he was a paid consultant to the manufacturer, AstraZeneca. Company sales representatives later distributed copies of Brewer's article to doctors nationwide.
Brewer did not respond to messages seeking his comment for this article.
Petricoin and Liotta will join the life-sciences division of George Mason University's College of Arts and Sciences in Manassas, Va., according to a university announcement. "We are excited that Drs. Liotta and Petricoin are joining us in our mission to build a research program of national prominence," said university President Alan Merten.
Liotta and Petricoin told colleagues this week of their pending departures in separate e-mails. Liotta, a past deputy director of the NIH who in recent years has been chief of the cancer institute's laboratory of pathology, said that accepting the new position "was a very hard decision to make," but that he "could not pass up the exciting opportunity."
Both men testified in May before a congressional subcommittee that probed industry payments to NIH researchers in response to reports in the Los Angeles Times.
Liotta, while leading the federal government's collaboration with a Maryland company to develop a test to detect ovarian cancer early, accepted $70,000 in consulting fees from a competitor firm from late 2002 to mid-2004. Liotta, 57, had entered into the arrangement with the approval of his superiors at the National Cancer Institute.
Petricoin, 40, also accepted fees from the competitor company with the permission of his superiors.
After an internal review, NIH officials recently referred Liotta for investigation by the inspector general's office of the Department of Health and Human Services, The Times reported last week.
Aides to the director of the NIH, Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, are assessing whether to discipline an unspecified number of agency employees. In addition to Liotta, several employees have been referred for investigation to the HHS inspector general's office, officials familiar with the cases said.
At a congressional subcommittee hearing in June, Zerhouni said the circumstances surrounding Liotta's government and company arrangements had pushed him to a "tipping point" in dealing with conflicts of interest at the agency.
Zerhouni last month announced the new, more stringent conflict-of-interest rules, which prohibit industry compensation and require employees to divest holdings in specific biomedical companies. Zerhouni said the public needed to be assured that NIH researchers reached conclusions and rendered medical advice based solely on scientific merit, not on personal financial considerations.
The new rules have drawn vocal protest from a group of NIH researchers.
The group on Wednesday proposed alternative rules -- under which most NIH scientists, including laboratory and branch chiefs -- would again be permitted to consult for pay for drug and biotechnology companies and to hold stock in the firms. The new rules, the group said, "are much more severe" than those at other research institutions or at biomedical companies. The group had earlier warned that the tougher rules would "discourage talented, innovative scientists from remaining at" the NIH.
The group urged NIH employees to send comments to HHS lawyers in an effort to soften or overturn the new restrictions.