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Diabetes Drug Maker Hired NIH Researcher as Consultant

By David Willman
Los Angeles Times

On June 11, 1996, the Warner-Lambert Co. announced that its new drug Rezulin had been selected for use in the federal government's largest study of diabetes.

In the company news release, Dr. Richard C. Eastman, the National Institutes of Health's top diabetes researcher who is overseeing the study, praised Rezulin as a drug that "corrects the underlying cause of diabetes."

The release was remarkable for two reasons:

First, Eastman's quoted claim that Rezulin corrects the cause of diabetes was - and remains - unproven. Eastman now denies making the remark.

Second, the news release did not disclose a potential conflict of interest. At the exact moment that he had overall responsibility for the $150 million government study, Eastman also was on Warner-Lambert's payroll as a consultant.

Eastman said he has acted properly and with the consent of his National Institutes of Health superiors. He said that he has "overall global responsibility" for the study but that he abstained from one or more votes backing Rezulin's selection.

These disclosures raise questions about conflict of interest, according to legal experts. Federal law makes it a crime for a high-ranking public official to have a financial arrangement with a company while participating "personally and substantially" in government matters that affect the company.

The revelations also raise questions about claims Warner-Lambert made in promoting Rezulin during its brief, troubled history: The drug has been linked to at least 33 deaths, additional liver-related injuries and three urgent warnings to doctors since it became available in the United States in March 1997. The drug remains on the market.

So far, Rezulin has paid off for Warner-Lambert with sales approaching $1 billion. The company reports that more than 1 million people with adult-onset diabetes have used the drug.

Warner-Lambert officials have achieved this while making a series of dubious statements about the drug, records and interviews show.

Last year, for example, the Food and Drug Administration accused the company of making "false and misleading" statements in a 1997 news release announcing the launch of the drug.

Company executives said that they have sought only to truthfully describe the drug.