Three prominent advocates of antidepressant use by children received millions of dollars from antidepressant manufacturers, casting into question the integrity of their already-controversial research.
The New York Times reported Saturday that Harvard University psychiatrists Joseph Biederman and Timothy Wilens received $1.6 million each from drug companies between 2000 and 2007. Thomas Spencer, another Harvard psychiatrist, received $1 million.
The payments were uncovered by Congressional investigators searching for conflict-of-interest violations. Federal law requires researchers who receive National Institutes of Health funding to report annual outside earnings above $10,000 to their universities. Biederman, Wilens and Spencer all took NIH money, but never reported the full extent of their drug company income.
That the researchers' results were influenced by the payments isn't clear, but the situation is ugly. Biederman has a very high profile; as the Times describes, he "is one of the most influential researchers in child psychiatry and is widely admired for focusing the fieldâ€™s attention on its most troubled young patients. Although many of his studies are small and often financed by drug makers, his work helped to fuel a controversial 40-fold increase from 1994 to 2003 in the diagnosis of pediatric bipolar disorder ... and a rapid rise in the use of antipsychotic medicines in children".
Childhood antidepressant use is hotly debated by scientists: it's not clear whether they work as well in kids as in adults, and the drugs may have profound effects on still-developing brains.
Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), leader of the Congressional investigation, has pushed for a national registry of commercial payments to researchers.