Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?


Two weeks ago I discussed a Commentary in JAMA by Dr. Thomas Insel, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health. Over on Danny Carlat’s blog, Dr. Insel took exception to my linking him with Charles Nemeroff, and appeared to be putting distance between himself and Dr. Nemeroff. So, I did some checking, and a correction to one of my statements is in order.

I had said, “ … that Insel appointed Nemeroff as an advisor soon after he (Insel) moved to NIMH.” That was my recollection. It turns out what I recalled was instead Insel showcasing Nemeroff in the NIMH Director’s 7th Annual Research Roundtable June 10, 2003, a few months after Insel moved from Emory University to NIMH. Let the record stand corrected.

At that gala meeting, held at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, Dr. Insel characterized Nemeroff as one of the “real stars of NIMH’s research community…” Nemeroff used the occasion to pimp GlaxoSmithKline’s drug paroxetine (Paxil), showing data on change in platelet stickiness after Paxil in patients with heart disease and depression. This highlighting of Paxil by Nemeroff focused on the surrogate outcome of platelet function, and contained no evidence that Paxil modified any important clinical endpoints. Nevertheless, Nemeroff speculated liberally about the place of antidepressant drugs in managing heart disease. This is the sort of stuff Insel described at the Roundtable as “ … an excellent sampling of the Institute’s exciting research endeavors.”

My general point two weeks ago was that Dr. Insel, the Director of an NIH Institute, downplayed the seriousness of the ethics issues surrounding the seven academic psychiatrists he mentioned in his Commentary in JAMA. Though he spoke in platitudes about the need for transparency, the spirit of transparency did not move him to disclose his own close ties with Dr. Nemeroff, who is one of the seven. Lest there be any remaining doubt about those ties, here is Dr. Nemeroff lauding Dr. Insel at the 201st meeting of the National Advisory Mental Health Council September 13, 2002 in the presence of the NIH Director, Elias Zerhouni, MD. From the Minutes: Dr. Charles Nemeroff, Reunette W. Harris Professor and Chair, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Emory University School of Medicine, commended Dr. Zerhouni’s selection of Dr. Insel as the next NIMH Director and added that Dr. Insel is the epitome of courage defined as grace under pressure. Dr. Nemeroff added that Dr. Insel will leave his current position as a most beloved professor, a respected scientist, and a great person.

In the comments on Danny Carlat’s blog I called Dr. Insel’s objections to my linking him with Nemeroff disingenuous. I still think that. Dr. Insel and Dr. Nemeroff are closer than Insel now seems comfortable acknowledging. Their record of talking up each other is hard to ignore. The irregularities identified by Senator Grassley involving Nemeroff’s reporting to NIH, his conflict of interest, and his conflict of commitment occurred on Insel’s watch. Considering the appearance of cronyism in their relationship, is it even possible for Dr. Insel to investigate Dr. Nemeroff’s performance in areas like the Emory-GlaxoSmithKline-NIMH Collaborative Mood Disorders Initiative?

Bernard Carroll