Federal scientist faces prison over conflict of interest charge

By Mike Nagle

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Acetylcholine, Alzheimer's disease

A federal scientist has been charged with criminal conflict of
interest after he allegedly performed consultancy work that
improperly overlapped with government work.

Dr Pearson "Trey" Sunderland, 55, is the chief of the geriatric psychiatry branch at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). He is accused of failing to properly report earning $285,000 (€214,307) in consultancy fees from Pfizer, as required by NIH rules. Sunderland is said to have earned the money by providing Pfizer with human tissue samples from NIH patients during an Alzheimer's study in which both groups collaborated.

Sunderland was a leading Alzheimer's researcher for the NIH, working on ways to detect the disease before symptoms become pronounced. In 1997, Pfizer asked Sunderland and his team at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to collaborate with them and Oxford Glycosciences, UK on a project to investigate new Alzheimer's biomarkers. These are specific biomolecules found in the body that can indicate the presence and progress of a disease.

The project ran from 1998 to 2003 and during this time the NIMH provided expertise and samples of cerebrospinal fluid, blood serum and other clinical data collected from NIMH patients.

According to information provided to the court and unknown to the NIH, Sunderland signed a consultancy contract with Pfizer in 1998 and over the next 5 years he was paid over $160,000 and related travel fees by the pharmaceutical company.

The information also alleges that Pfizer paid further fees to Sunderland totalling $125,000 for a second research project to compare levels of known biomarkers in cerebrospinal fluid.

The charge relates to the allegation that Sunderland did not disclose that he was being paid consultancy payment nor seek approval from the NIH.

Sunderland faces a maximum sentence of a $100,000 fine and one year's imprisonment.

The case details were heard at a congressional hearing of the House Committee of Energy and Commerce in February 2005. At that time, Sunderland asserted his right under the Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution and refused to testify.

This congressional investigation led the NIH to conduct its own internal investigation. Of the 44 staff found to have violated its ethics policy, the majority received warnings. Six left the NIH before sanctions were imposed and two were found to have committed very minor infractions that did not warrant punishment. A few of the staff were suspended.

Pfizer market Alzheimer's drug Aricept (donepezil HCl). The drug is thought to work by reducing the breakdown of the acetylcholine (Ach), a neurotransmitter chemical that carries messages between nerve cells in the brain. A shortage of ACh has been associated with Alzheimer's symptoms.

Sunderland is due to appear in the US District Court in Baltimore on Friday morning for an initial hearing. Although he will enter a plea at this time, the submission of an "information" document to the court can indicate a forthcoming guilty plea. Sunderland's lawyer, R Muse, was unavailable for comment.

Related topics: Preclinical Research

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