NIH Cancels Large Alcohol/Heart Health Study

A $100-million study into whether alcohol protects against heart attack and stroke has been canceled by the U.S. National Institutes of Health after an investigation revealed that much of the money for the study came from the alcohol industry.

If the study had answered yes to that question, alcohol could have become a recommended part of a healthy diet, The New York Times reported.

Earlier this year, the newspaper revealed that officials at the NIH's National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism had sought funding from alcohol companies, a violation of federal policy.

Last Friday, an advisory panel recommended to NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins that the study be scrapped, and Collins agreed.

Investigators discovered that there "was frequent email correspondence" between NIAAA staff, outside scientists and alcohol industry officials, and that alcohol makers offered input into the design of the study, The Times reported.

Study lead investigator Dr. Kenneth J. Mukamal, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, had email discussions about the study design with alcohol officials in August 2014, and in December 2014 he had a conference call discussing the research with a dozen representatives of alcohol companies, according to investigators.

"The early and frequent engagement with industry representatives calls into question the impartiality of the process and thus casts doubt that the scientific knowledge gained from the study would be actionable or believable," the advisory committee wrote.

The discussions between NIAAA staff and alcohol industry representatives occurred before the Foundation for the NIH, which is empowered to solicit donations for government studies, received permission to raise private funding for the trial, The Times reported.

NIAAA officials also "hid facts" from other staff and from the foundation, the investigators concluded.

The decision to cancel the study "ensures that NIH's research agenda will be determined by scientific merit, not corporate marketing priorities," Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor of community health sciences at Boston University and an early critic of the alcohol study, told The Times.

"The NIH research portfolio should not be up to the highest corporate bidder," he added.

Mukamal released a statement in which he denied any wrongdoing and said he and his colleagues "stand fully and forcefully behind the scientific integrity" of the trial, The Times reported.

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