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Profile: Elias Zerhouni

Elias Zerhouni was a participant or observer in the following events:

Dr. Pearson “Trey” Sunderland.Dr. Pearson “Trey” Sunderland. [Source: CreativityFound (.org)]Dr. Pearson “Trey” Sunderland III, a National Institute of Health (NIH) senior researcher on Alzheimer’s disease, pleads guilty to a federal charge that he committed a criminal conflict of interest. The charges stem from Sunderland’s contract with the pharmaceutical firm Pfizer as a paid consultant for work that overlapped his duties as a public servant. Sunderland is the first official in 14 years to be prosecuted for conflict of interest at NIH, an agency rocked in recent years by revelations of widespread financial ties to the drug industry. According to the original court filing, in early 1998, “Sunderland initiated negotiations with Pfizer, the pharmaceutical giant, to be paid as a consultant for his work on the same project” that he headed for NIH, a research project into Alzheimer’s disease. In June 2006, Sunderland was revealed to have engaged in a secret contract with Pfizer to supply thousands of samples of spinal fluid collected from Alzheimer’s patients at taxpayer expense and slated to be used in NIH research. Sunderland turned those samples over to Pfizer, which in turn used them to refine and market its drug Aricept, a leading prescription drug for treating the disease (see June 14, 2006). According to the original charging document filed with the court, in 1998 Sunderland approached Pfizer with a proposal that he be paid $25,000 a year for “consulting” with the firm, plus $2,500 every time he attended a one-day meeting with company representatives. Pfizer agreed. Later that same year, Sunderland set up another deal with Pfizer to be paid another $25,000 a year, according to prosecutors. The House Energy and Commerce Committee received little cooperation from NIH—Sunderland himself invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when called to testify before the committee in June 2006—but subpoeaned 21 drug manufacturers known to have paid NIH researchers. Sunderland’s history of payments from Pfizer, which he did not reveal to the NIH as required by law, were some of those discovered. After that information was revealed in 2004, NIH director Elias Zerhouni requested that the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services investigate the matter. Government researchers found that 44 researchers, including Sunderland, had off-the-books relationships with drug and biotech companies; many of those researchers were reprimanded and/or took early retirement. At the time of Sunderland’s contracts with Pfizer, NIH restrictions against public-private collaborations were far more lax than they are today. (Beamish 12/4/2006; Associated Press 12/5/2006; Willman 12/5/2006; Fahrenthold 12/5/2006)
'Public Trust Has Been Violated' - Congressman John Dingell (D-MI) asks, “Will a criminal conviction for conflict of interest be enough to get someone fired from NIH?” Bart Stupak (D-MI) adds, “If the National Institutes of Health and Commissioned Corps fail to discipline Dr. Sunderland, even after criminal charges have been brought, we can only conclude that no one is being held accountable, the system is broken, and the public trust has been violated.” (Associated Press 12/5/2006; Willman 12/5/2006) Committee member Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) says: “I found this story incredibly distressing because it is so important that people have confidence in the NIH. It is a pretty big move for people to donate human tissue to further scientific discovery. People have to have confidence that that decision… is treated with the utmost respect.” (Fahrenthold 12/5/2006)
Guilty Plea Avoids Jail Time - Sunderland pleads guilty to the charge under a plea agreement in which he admits to taking some $285,000 in “unauthorized” consulting fees from Pfizer as well as $15,000 in travel expense payments between 1998 and 2003. During the same period, he provided Pfizer with spinal-tap samples collected from hundreds of patients as part of a research collaboration approved by the NIH. He agrees to pay the government $300,000, perform 400 hours of community service, and serve two years’ probation. Sunderland faced up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine, but avoided those penalties through his plea agreement. After the hearing, US Attorney Rod Rosenstein tells reporters that Sunderland’s actions constitute a breach of the public trust. (Willman 12/5/2006; Fahrenthold 12/5/2006) According to NIH spokesman Don Ralbovsky, Sunderland remains an employee, working as a “special assistant and senior adviser” in a division that gives out grants; Rabolvsky refuses to comment on whether Sunderland faces termination procedures. The branch of NIH that Sunderland once headed, the Geriatric Psychiatry Branch, no longer exists, according to Ralbovsky. (Fahrenthold 12/5/2006) One media report says Sunderland is planning to retire. (Beamish 12/4/2006) Sunderland will later become a doctor and director of the Alzheimer Research Center at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. (Lundbeck Institute 12/11/2008)
Pfizer Denies Wrongdoing - For its part, Pfizer maintains that it broke no laws and breached no ethics, saying in a statement: “We believe our actions complied with applicable laws and ethical standards. We are not aware of any allegation that we violated any law or regulation.” (Willman 12/5/2006; Fahrenthold 12/5/2006; Los Angeles Times 12/11/2006)

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