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NIH unaware of scientists' deals

Ethics inquiry finds more than reported

WASHINGTON -- Drug makers including Pfizer Inc. reported about 100 consulting agreements with scientists at the US National Institutes of Health that the government-funded research organization didn't know about, according to a lawmaker who is leading an ethics inquiry.

Representative James Greenwood, a Pennsylvania Republican, said the House Energy and Commerce Committee investigations panel he chairs asked the 20 drug companies with the greatest number of NIH research agreements about consulting contracts with individual scientists.

He said they reported 264, or 100 more than the NIH disclosed.

''The concern that there is a substantial number of outside deals that are conducted in total secrecy even from NIH is not implausible," Greenwood said at hearing in Washington.

Greenwood held two hearings last month looking into conflicts of interest related to the NIH's $28 billion annual budget.

One of the hearings revealed that two government scientists who were working under an NIH agreement with closely held Correlogic Systems Inc. also had outside consulting agreements with a potential rival, Biospect Inc., now called Predicant Bioscience.

The NIH intends to limit its scientists' connection to drug companies, partly in response to information disclosed at the two earlier hearings, Elias Zerhouni, the director of the institutes, said at yesterday's meeting.

At the same time, Zerhouni said he is hesitant to rule out consulting agreements for the scientists who work directly for the NIH.

The institutes compete with more than 200 universities to recruit top researchers, and a ban on consulting might put the NIH at a disadvantage, he said.

Zerhouni was a radiologist and executive vice dean at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine before taking over at the NIH in 2002.

The organization funnels most of its budget to universities and other research sites, funding projects ranging from understanding the basic processes inside a cell to checking whether there might be unknown benefits or complications from decades-old drugs such as those used in hormone therapy.

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