updated 5/12/2004 2:29:24 PM ET 2004-05-12T18:29:24

The National Institutes of Health may bar senior officials from receiving consulting payments from drug companies, one of a series of steps the agency’s chief said Wednesday that he plans in the wake of concerns about conflict of interest.

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But some collaboration with industry and academia is vital to advance science and to translate discoveries into medical practice, cautioned Dr. Elias Zerhouni, the NIH’s director.

“We should be more transparent, more vigilant about oversight, and we need to tighten the rules,” he said in testimony prepared for a House subcommittee. “But it would be a mistake to ban all compensated activities with outside organizations. Such an action would be bad for science, unfair to the employees and ultimately hinder our efforts to improve the nation’s health.”

Media reports that some researchers have received thousands of dollars as company consultants raised the conflict-of-interest concerns. Only 120 of the NIH’s thousands of employees currently have any consulting agreements with the drug industry, a special task force concluded last week.

Zerhouni testified that he plans to follow some of the task force’s recommendations, including:

—Senior NIH officials and those who make funding decisions should do no industry consulting work.

—Employees engaged in compensated outside work should never receive stock as payment.

—Scientists will be allowed to engage in some consulting, teaching or other outside work under clearer rules designed to eliminate even the appearance of a conflict.

Also Wednesday, the Department of Health and Human Services released new guidelines on how medical schools and other organizations can protect patients in research stu“dies from conflicts of interest.

The guidelines stem from the 1999 death of 18-year-old Jesse Gelsinger during a gene therapy experiment where some federal safety rules weren’t followed and one of the researchers had financial ties to a company that could profit from such work.

The guidelines suggest how to determine if financial ties may affect study participants’ rights and welfare, such as by establishing independent conflict-of-interest committees to ensure protection.

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