THREE STRIKES AND …
Professor Charles Nemeroff is being honored today in London. He will deliver a high profile lecture at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, a component of The University of London. IoP and its associated Maudsley Hospital have long been at the forefront of psychiatric research in Britain. The occasion today is the establishment of a new program on mood disorders, and Professor Nemeroff’s topic will be “The Neurobiology of Child Abuse: Treatment Implications.” He will be introduced by Professor Allan Young and the vote of thanks will be proposed by Professor Sir Robin Murray, a former dean of IoP-Maudsley. In the chair will be Professor Carmine Pariante, a onetime colleague of Professor Nemeroff. The current dean, Professor Shitij Kapur, seems to be staying in the background.
On this side of the pond we are depressingly familiar with Professor Nemeroff. He is the poster boy for conflict of interest in academic psychiatry. I will not rehearse here all the ethics issues in which he has been compromised over the past 15 years. Suffice it to say that as a result of those issues he was dismissed from his departmental chairmanship at Emory University; he was required to resign as editor of the journal Neuropsychopharmacology; he was banned from involvement in NIH grants at Emory University for 2 years; he received an unprecedented sanction from the Ethics Committee and Council of The American College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ACNP), which included a 2-year ban on participating in ACNP meetings and committees; the Accreditation Council on Continuing Medical Education (ACCME) issued a punitive sanction on a program that he directed, finding commercial bias and requiring the program to be withdrawn; and he was referred by Senator Charles Grassley of the US Senate Finance Committee to the Inspector General of the US Department of Health and Human Services for investigation of grounds for criminal charges.
The administrators of IoP-Maudsley apparently ignored these warning signals when they announced over a month ago that they had tapped Professor Nemeroff for today’s honorific lectureship. Many other professionals were shocked, however, and they voiced their disapproval widely – directly to the IoP, in the mainline press, in the British Medical Journal, in on-line comments, and even in a video critique. University Diaries ran a critical commentary, as did the respected weblogs Pharmalot and 1Boringoldman. Significantly, the letter to British Medical Journal came from a psychiatrist affiliated with IoP itself.
The IoP responded with typical academic stonewalling. Professor Carmine Pariante and Professor Allan Young wrote to the Critical Psychiatry Network, defending the decision to engage Professor Nemeroff. Unfortunately for them, their letter contained 2 fatal mistakes. First, they highlighted the perceived academic distinction of Professor Nemeroff as justification for his selection, thereby confusing an ethics issue with a competency issue. Who cares about Professor Nemeroff’s supposed expertise? When such a compromised individual is given honorific status it sends the wrong message to junior faculty members and to trainees. It also sends the wrong message about the institution's values, as I have discussed before. The IoP will be tainted by this episode for years to come, and the responsible administrators deserve all the frowns and brickbats that will come their way.
The second fatal error in the IoP response was to cast the issue in terms of academic freedom. That claim is rank hypocrisy. The protests are ethics complaints, not disagreements about content or professional turf. Professor Nemeroff was impeached by his peers for ethical lapses, as the record of sanctions clearly shows. That is what sparked the protests. The IoP administrators are displaying glass eyes and tin ears.
We should also question the scientific judgment of the IoP administrators. Treatment implications of child abuse is a featured focus of Professor Nemeroff’s lecture. How much do the IoP administrators really know about Professor Nemeroff’s work in this area? Do they know how little he has published in this area? Do they know that he is on the public record with at least 2 instances of misrepresenting his work in this area?
Professor Nemeroff’s sole publication of original data in this area appeared in 2003 (PubMed ID 14615578). It was a secondary analysis of a large clinical trial, first reported in 2000, that originally did not consider child abuse as a moderating variable in the response of chronically depressed patients to an antidepressant (nefazodone) or to cognitive behavior therapy (CBASP). The 2003 report claimed that, in patients with a history of childhood trauma, response to CBASP was superior to response to nefazodone. At the same time there was no significant difference in response rates to drug or to CBASP between patients with or without childhood trauma histories. A portion of this report was later retracted (see PNAS 2005 November 8;102(45):16530) because the data concerning reduction of Hamilton depression scores had been misrepresented.
Notwithstanding the retraction, Professor Nemeroff discussed the retracted data without the necessary qualification in a 2008 Continuing Medical Education program – the same one that was sanctioned by ACCME. Use of retracted material in this way is inconsistent with ethically grounded teaching. It also is inconsistent with FDA standards for scientific reference publications. Among other requirements, the FDA standards state that scientific reference publications may not “be false or misleading, such as a journal article or reference text… that has been withdrawn by the journal or disclaimed by the author, or…” Professor Nemeroff then went further, stating in the video record that a history of childhood abuse or neglect “predicts poor outcome… particularly to pharmacotherapy.” That claim is outright false. The data simply do not support that claim.
Professor Nemeroff repeated these same misrepresentations on the video record a second time in January 2012 when he presented Psychiatry Grand Rounds at New York University. Once again Professor Nemeroff displayed sleight of hand in palming off a nonsignificant difference as both statistically and clinically significant. To reiterate, Professor Nemeroff’s own data do not show a statistically or clinically significant difference between chronically depressed patients with and without a history of child abuse in their responses to drug or to CBASP.
The question for today is, will Professor Nemeroff repeat these misrepresentations in his lecture at the IoP-Maudsley? Should he do that, then the 3-strike rule needs to be invoked. I nominate the administrators at IoP-Maudsley for the job of lowering the boom finally on Professor Nemeroff. That would be one way they might redeem themselves in this fiasco.
Oh, and by the way, Professor Nemeroff has apparently done nothing more in this area since the 2003 partially retracted secondary analysis of an earlier study. But others have been looking at his claims and have not confirmed them – see, for instance the Canadian study that found no difference in response rates to pharmacotherapy or cognitive behavior therapy in patients with and without histories of severe childhood maltreatment (PubMed ID 22428942). Will Professor Nemeroff acknowledge this non-confirmation of his narrative when he speaks today at the IoP-Maudsley? We are agog.
If the administrators of IoP-Maudsley wish to continue defending their selection of Professor Nemeroff as a world expert on the treatment implications of child abuse, then who am I to argue? I don’t need to argue… the record speaks for itself.
One final point: the IoP response to the Critical Psychiatry Network stated that Professor Nemeroff “will not be presenting any research that was funded by commercial companies or affected by commercial implications. Obviously, he will be declaring any relevant conflicts of interest prior to his lecture.” The administrators at IoP should be aware that Professor Nemeroff’s data on treatment implications of child abuse (such as they are) do, in fact, come from a commercially sponsored clinical trial. I would also bet dollars to donuts that Professor Nemeroff declares no relationship to Bristol Myers Squibb, the sponsor of that trial.
What are the larger lessons of this new affaire Nemeroff? Academic institutions like IoP-Maudsley need spine and due diligence to maintain decent standards and to put the hand wavers where they belong – not on center stage. Raise the bar, chaps!