National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins told lawmakers on Thursday that his agency suspended enrollment for a study on alcohol consumption found to have beverage industry ties.
Collins assured members of a Senate subcommittee, which was examining the NIH's budget for next year, that the agency is carefully examining whether or not the study is still worth pursuing.
The study in question was a $100 million project aimed at examining the potential benefits of moderate alcohol consumption on cardiovascular health.
"For NIH, our reputation is so critical and if we are putting ourselves in a circumstance where that could be called into question, I felt we had to look at that very seriously and look at another strategy," Collins said.
The study, which was being overseen by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, was called into question in March by an investigation reported in the New York Times. They later reported NIH officials were investigating whether those health officials violated policy by reaching out to alcohol companies for funding.
Collins said the agency is also investigating research at other NIH institutes to ensure the "compromised" project is not part of a bigger problem.
“I'm very concerned that this might be the tip of a larger iceberg," Collins told lawmakers. "We will look closely to see if there are other examples of this sort because that would be very much against the principles we stand for, which is separation of funding sources from outside with decisions about science. And also, of course, the peer review process needs to be absolutely above reproach."
He promised to follow up with the committee on what he finds.
NIH carefully navigating opioid partnership with drug industry
With the backdrop of the concern over the alcohol study, Collins said his agency is moving forward—albeit carefully—in a partnership with pharmaceutical companies.
In response to lawmaker questions about plans for industry players to help pay for and participate in efforts to address concerns tied to the opioid crisis, Collins said the NIH has been in conversations with 33 companies and that he expects to release more partnership details within the next couple of weeks.
Areas where NIH and the industry could partner include the sharing of data and assets, as well as repurposing compounds which might have been tried for something else or abandoned.
However, he said, serious concerns were raised about the funding.
"The controversies that arose were—given the circumstances around the opioid crisis and the fact that there are now lawsuits filed against no less than five of these companies claiming they may have played some role in the opioid crisis in the first place by marketing such drugs as oxycontin—whether it is a good idea or potentially carries a reputational risk for NIH to receive funds from the companies."
NIH decided to pursue the partnerships but will not accept funds from pharma, he said.