Federal scientist pleads guilty

By Mike Nagle

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Money

A leading Alzheimer's expert has pleaded guilty to a conflict of
interest charge relating to money he received from a pharmaceutical
company while conducting research for the US government.

At a hearing last Friday at the US District Court in Baltimore, Maryland, Pearson "Trey" Sunderland, chief of the geriatric psychiatry branch at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), admitted to accepting approximately $300,000 (€227,000) in consultancy fees from Pfizer.

"Dr Sunderland accepted $300,000 in payments from Pfizer over a period of five years in connection with the very same projects that Dr. Sunderland was working on as a NIH employee, without reporting the payments on financial disclosure reports that he submitted to the NIH Ethics Office,"​ said United States Attorney for the District of Maryland, Rod Rosenstein.

"Dr Sunderland violated the fundamental rule that government employees cannot accept payment from interested private parties without the permission of their supervisors."

Sunderland collaborated with Pfizer on two projects. In the first, the two parties looked for new Alzheimer's biomarkers, specific biomolecules found in the body that can indicate the presence and progress of a disease. The second project was to compare levels of known Alzheimer's biomarkers in cerebrospinal fluid.

The maximum penalty for the charge is one year in prison and a fine of $100,000. However, the parties have agreed to a sentence of two years of supervised probation with special conditions, 400 hours of community service and an, as yet undetermined, fine and special assessment fee. In addition, Sunderland must pay back the $300,000 he received, although this does not prevent any further civil action from Pfizer or the NIH if they so wish.

Sentencing is scheduled for 10am on Friday, December 22, 2006.

In a similar case, the Guardian revealed that world famous British scientist, Sir Richard Doll, failed to disclose that in the mid-1980s, he received consultancy fees from chemical company Monsanto while investigating cancer risks in the industry.

Monsanto made Agent Orange, a chemical used by the US in the Vietnam war. Sir Richard, who died last year, wrote to the royal Australian commission saying there was no evidence the chemical caused cancer. However, it was not disclosed that at the time he was receiving $1,500 a day in consultancy fees from the firm, now primarily a genetically-modified seed supplier.

Sir Richard was best known for his pioneering work that first established a link between smoking and lung cancer.

Related topics: Preclinical Research

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