University News

Longtime psychiatry chair resigns

By
Senior Staff Writer

Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior Martin Keller will step down as chair of the department this June, amid ongoing federal scrutiny directed at him and other researchers with financial ties to pharmaceutical companies.

Keller’s resignation, announced Monday in an e-mail to the Alpert Medical School community by Dean of Medicine and Biological Sciences Edward Wing, comes almost two years after Keller sent a letter to members of his department declaring his intention to resign June 30 of this year. Last year, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the ranking minority member of the Senate Finance Committee, sent a letter of inquiry requesting that Keller disclose his financial ties to pharmaceutical companies.

Keller will be replaced as chair on an interim basis by Steven Rasmussen MD’77, an associate professor in the department, Wing wrote in his e-mail.

“During Dr. Keller’s tenure, the department has been widely acknowledged as one of the top 10 psychiatry departments in the country,” Wing wrote, thanking Keller for “his many accomplishments and fine leadership.”

Keller’s August 2007 letter to members of his department said his decision to resign two years from then “was a deeply personal one and thought out over a sustained period with my family, close friends and University leadership.” He wrote that he intended to stay at Brown as a professor and researcher after taking a one-year sabbatical.

In his letter, Keller wrote that announcing his intentions two years before he planned to step down would “provide time for a thorough national search and an orderly leadership transition.”

Provost David Kertzer ’69 P’95 P’98 said Keller’s decision was not a direct result of the investigations into possible wrongdoing by the professor. “He’s been chair for 20 years,” Kertzer said. “And he decided 20 years is enough to be chair.”

Keller has not been investigated publicly by the University, but Kertzer confirmed Monday that Keller’s conduct was investigated internally.

“We received some allegations and looked into them, and we dealt with them,” Kertzer said. “The fact that Professor Keller has continued to be chair and continued research and continued to get grants speaks for itself.”

The move comes at a time of increased federal scrutiny over conflicts of interest in academic research funded in part by large pharmaceutical companies.

Last year, Grassley’s committee targeted Keller, who authored a controversial clinical study claiming that the anti-depressant paroxetine, marketed as Paxil by GlaxoSmithKline, was effective in treating depression in children.

According to a Herald article last September, multiple sources alleged that Keller misreported data. Documents indicated that his research group changed outcome measures during the study and had the final paper ghostwritten while receiving undocumented funds from GSK.

In an e-mail to The Herald Monday, Keller wrote, “There is no connection between any supposed ‘controversy’ and my having entered into a written agreement with the University years ago which calls for me to step down as chair at the end of June 2009.”

In a separate e-mail to The Herald, Keller wrote, “Frankly I had wanted to step down as chair of the department earlier than this date, but the University asked me to stay on through June 2009 and I agreed.”

Keller’s resignation comes only a month after Emory University’s Charles Nemeroff stepped down as chair of the school’s psychiatry department following an investigation by Grassley’s committee, the Wall Street Journal reported in February. Researchers at several other research universities, including Harvard, Stanford University and the University of Texas have also come under scrutiny from Grassley for ties to pharmaceutical companies.

According to Alison Bass, a former medical writer for the Boston Globe and author of “Side Effects,” a 2008 book documenting a lawsuit against GSK over the marketing of Paxil, Keller failed to report funding granted by the company on his 1998 tax returns, though he later acknowledged in a deposition for a GSK lawsuit that he had been receiving consulting fees from GSK while he was conducting research on the drug.

Keller also received approximately $300,000 from Pfizer and other pharmaceutical companies, Bass said.

Ethical questions such as those concerning Keller’s research are common, especially in studies involving human subjects, said Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine Roy Poses ’73 MD’78. But a problem arises if a company is funding research into its own products, he said.

Kertzer said Brown complied with the request to disclose all funding from drug companies in response to Grassley’s letter of inquiry.

“I know that they received a request for information, and we provided all the information required,” Kertzer said.

Jill Kozeny, Grassley’s communications director, said the investigation is currently underway. “Grassley’s inquiry is active,” she said, adding that “another letter is possible.”

The Herald reported in February that Brown intends to revise its policy on conflicts of interest in research to prevent similar situations in the future.