Providence Journal: New ethics rules at the National Institutes of Health should help place badly needed distance between government researchers and profit-oriented companies. Announced this month, the new rules will bar NIH scientists from working on the side for drug or biotechnology companies. In addition, they are prohibited from consulting with insurers, health-care providers, and trade organizations.
Charged with finding cures for diseases, NIH scientists traditionally had no ties to private companies. But that began to change in the 1990s, when the NIH director did away with restrictions on outside earnings. Very soon, the line between humanitarian effort and medicine for profit began to blur.
An investigation by the Los Angeles Times unearthed a series of conflicts of interest. Hearings before the House Energy and Commerce Committee produced further evidence. Among the more disturbing examples was that of Dr. Bryan Brewer Jr., who promoted the cholesterol-lowering drug Crestor in an article paid for by AstraZeneca, the manufacturer. Dr. Brewer, a top official at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, appended his lofty government credentials to the article -- but neglected mentioning serious safety problems associated with Crestor.
Dr. Elias Zerhouni, current director of the Institutes, said that since 1999, 369 of their 6,000 scientists had engaged in private consulting. The House committee hearings revealed that dozens had failed to report these arrangements or to get permission.
The relationships between drug and biotechnology companies and government agencies have in general grown too cozy in recent years. Problems are festering not only at NIH but also at the federal Food and Drug Administration. Too often, private gain has taken precedence over public health. Potentially dangerous side effects go unstudied or, if found, are suppressed, for the sake of unleashing lucrative new treatments.