Committee Questions a Top Psychiatrist

An official of the American Psychiatric Association is asked about drug company ties.

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Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) during Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Capitol Hill.

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Earlier this year, Alan Schatzberg, the chairman of the psychiatry department at Stanford University School of Medicine, was named president-elect of the American Psychiatric Association, arguably the most influential psychiatric group in the country. His appointment came at a critical and busy time. The APA has just embarked on a massive, multiyear effort to rewrite its diagnostic manual, which defines and classifies mental illnesses and provides a basis for their treatment.

Schatzberg, however, now finds himself in a less comfortable position: the latest subject of a broad Senate investigation into financial relationships between drug companies and researchers. Led by Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, the investigation has already raised questions about prominent researchers at the University of Cincinnati and Harvard University—in particular, about the adequacy of their reporting of income from drug companies. Now Grassley has added Schatzberg and Stanford University to the investigation, congressional records show.

Like many of his medical colleagues, Schatzberg has received money from drug companies for work done on their behalf: consulting, lecturing, advising. Most universities and hospitals require such ties to be reported regularly, since significant financial relationships have been shown to bias research. (On average, researchers receiving money from drug companies are more likely to report positive findings in studies of the companies' drugs.) But disclosure policies vary from university to university or from hospital to hospital, and increased scrutiny of researcher-drug company ties has recently led to calls for tighter rules. Thus, Grassley is exploring whether tougher guidelines are needed to ensure transparency, fair play, and the proper use of federal research funds.

In Schatzberg's case, Senate investigators found "a lack of consistency" between what he earned from drug companies and what he reported to Stanford, according to congressional records. Together, the discrepancies total about $70,000. Grassley is also questioning the rigor of Stanford's guidelines for disclosure. Schatzberg, for example, is cofounder of Corcept Therapeutics, which has applied for approval from the Food and Drug Administration to market the drug mifepristone [RU-486, an FDA-approved abortifacient] for psychotic depression. According to Securities and Exchange Commission filings, Schatzberg owns more than $6 million of Corcept stock. Stanford, however, requires researchers to specify only whether they own more than $100,000 of stock, Grassley says.

"Obviously, $6 million is a dramatically higher number than $100,000," Grassley said in the Senate on Monday. "I am concerned that Stanford may not be able to adequately monitor Schatzberg's conflicts of interest with its current disclosure policies and submit to you that these policies should be re-examined." Grassley also said that Schatzberg sold nearly $110,000 of Corcept stock in 2005, just months after beginning clinical trials on mifepristone, but was not required to report the sale to the university.

In response to Grassley's initial inquiry this spring, Stanford says it conducted "an extensive investigation" and has determined that Schatzberg did nothing wrong. "We believe that Dr. Alan Schatzberg...has fully complied with the university's rigorous conflict of interest policy," the university said in a statement to U.S. News. The university said that Schatzberg—contrary to a claim made by Grassley—did disclose to the Senate a $22,000 payment from Johnson & Johnson in 2002. Other discrepancies were most likely due to "misunderstandings" arising from "differences in record keeping," the statement said. In an E-mail to U.S. News, Schatzberg said: "I can confirm Stanford's statement that I have fully complied with its disclosure policies."

On the question of adequate financial oversight, the university says its disclosure policies promote "well-managed interactions" between industry and academia. Schatzberg had informed school officials of his involvement with Corcept Therapeutics and promised not to participate "in any human subject research involving mifepristone," the statement said. The university also said that after a further review, it was aware of the true value of Schatzberg's Corcept stock.