Feature

NIH cans study that relied on millions in funding from alcohol companies


 

The National Institutes of Health is canning a large study on the potential health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption after an advisory committee agreed with reporting by the New York Times that NIH employees and scientists solicited study funds from the alcoholic beverage industry.

NIH Francis Collins, MD, said the ethical violations resulted in a fundamentally flawed study that could not proceed.

Dr. Francis Collins NIH

Dr. Francis Collins

“NIH has strong policies that detail the standards of conduct for NIH employees, including prohibiting the solicitation of gifts and promoting fairness in grant competitions. We take very seriously any violations of these standards,” Dr. Collins said in a statement, which added that the agency will take appropriate personnel actions.

While testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee in mid-May on NIH’s budget request for 2019, Dr. Collins vowed not only to appropriately close the Moderate Alcohol and Cardiovascular Health (MACH) study, but to investigate whether other potential conflicts exist in other NIH-funded studies.

The story broke in mid-March, when The New York Times reported that scientists and officials from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism who were working on the MACH trial met at informational sessions with five liquor and beer companies in 2013 and 2014. The officials suggested that “the research might reflect favorably on moderate drinking, while institute officials pressed the groups for support,” according to documents obtained by the Times.

In all, the Times reported, the alcohol companies agreed to foot $67 million of the trial’s total $100 million bill. Such action violates NIH policy. An NIH report named those companies as Anheuser-Busch InBev, Carlsberg Breweries A/S, Diageo plc, Heineken, and Pernod Ricard USA LLC.

The MACH study was a multicenter, randomized clinical trial to determine the effects of one serving of alcohol (approximately 15 grams) daily, compared to no alcohol intake, on the rate of new cases of cardiovascular disease and the rate of new cases of diabetes among participants free of diabetes at baseline.

“The study was launched because some epidemiological studies have shown that moderate alcohol consumption has health benefits by reducing risk for coronary artery disease, type 2 diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis,” according to the NIH statement. “The study aimed to enroll 7,800 participants. After a planning phase, it began enrollment on Feb. 5, 2018, and was suspended on May 10, 2018, at which time there were 105 participants enrolled.”

The trial was being led by researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston.

In response to the public disclosure of the study’s funding, NIH convened a working group to ascertain:

  • the circumstances that led to securing private funding for MACH trial
  • the scientific premise of and planning for the MACH trial
  • the process used to decide to support the MACH trial
  • program development and oversight once funding was secured by the secured by the Foundation for NIH (FNIH)
  • a review of the NIAAA portfolio prior to and during the leadership of the current NIAAA Director to assess what programmatic shifts, if any, could be discerned.

While noting that public-private partnerships are key to advancing science, the committee found that soliciting funds from alcoholic beverage companies for a study that could prove such beverages are beneficial, crossed the “firewall” between public funds and private resources. The committee recommended terminating the study.

The committee also recommended an expanded investigation into measures that would prevent NIH staff from soliciting external funds to support research programs.

The committee uncovered an email trail strongly suggesting that the solicitation of funds was planned and intended to be secretive.

According to the working group report, there was “frequent email correspondence among members of NIAAA senior staff, select extramural investigators (including the eventual PI of the MACH trial), and industry representatives occurred prior to involvement of the FNIH and the development of the NIH funding opportunity announcement for a multi-site clinical trial on moderate drinking and cardiovascular health. These communications appear to be an attempt to persuade industry to provide funding for the MACH trial. Moreover, these senior members of NIAAA staff appear to have purposefully kept other key members of NIAAA staff and the FNIH ignorant of these efforts. For example, correspondence between NIAAA staff draws attention to a February 2014 wine industry blog that reports that FNIH is initiating a search for industry funding to support a major clinical study on the health effects of moderate alcohol consumption. One senior staff member at NIAAA is unaware of any such potential planning, asking another senior staff member about the article. ‘... Anything seem broken here?’ even though such a trial to test moderate drinking effects on cardiovascular health should very likely involve the programmatic division to which this senior staff member belongs. In response to receiving the forwarded discussion, NIAAA senior leadership communicates among one other, ‘Best not to respond right now but we can’t keep him totally in the dark.’ "

The trial was also funded in part by NIAAA, which expected to commit $20 million to the overall project over 10 years, of which $4 million has been spent.

“The integrity of the NIH grants administrative process, peer review, and the quality of NIH-supported research must always be above reproach,” Dr. Collins said in the statement. “When any problems are uncovered, however, efforts to correct them must be swift and comprehensive.”

msullivan@mdedge.com

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