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NIH scientist silent on accepting Pfizer fees


WASHINGTON -- A senior scientist at the National Institutes of Health exercised his right against self-incrimination yesterday, refusing to answer questions from a congressional subcommittee probing conflicts of interest at the agency.

Dr. P. Trey Sunderland III, who remains chief of the geriatric psychology branch at the NIH's National Institute of Mental Health, had accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees from Pfizer Inc. while collaborating with the company in his official role.

Sunderland listened to condemnations of his conduct during the first two hours of a hearing convened by a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

His supervisor, Dr. Thomas R. Insel, director of the mental health institute, testified that "given the severity" of Sunderland's alleged misconduct, he should be fired. Both Insel and the NIH's deputy director for on-site research, Dr. Michael M. Gottesman, told the panel that some of Sunderland's actions have been referred to the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Justice Department.

From 1996 to 2004, Sunderland accepted fees from Pfizer totaling about $612,000. He did not obtain required permission from the NIH to enter into his arrangements with Pfizer and he did not report the payments on his annual financial disclosure forms.

Moreover, during several of those years Sunderland provided the drug company with thousands of samples of spinal fluid that he and his staff drew from Alzheimer's disease volunteers who visited the NIH in Bethesda.

Congressional investigators reported this week that Sunderland had applied for patents with Pfizer in the United States and in Europe - apparently without informing the NIH.

Still, Insel and Gottesman said yesterday that they lacked the authority to discipline Sunderland because he is assigned to the NIH by the U.S. Commissioned Corps, a uniformed service led by the surgeon general.

With exasperation, the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Joe L. Barton, a Texas Republican, countered: "What would happen if Dr. Sunderland went out and robbed a bank? Would he report to work with full benefits?"

A former government research aide at the NIH, Karen T. Putnam, joined Sunderland in his brief appearance at the witness table. She, too, asserted her Fifth Amendment rights. Putnam worked with Sunderland and Pfizer in forwarding the spinal-fluid samples to the drug company, under terms of a "material transfer agreement."

At the same time, Putnam accepted fees and expense reimbursements from Pfizer exceeding $60,000. She has acknowledged that she did not get advance permission to enter into the paid arrangement with Pfizer.

David Willman writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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