Junkfood Science: What’s in a name? Where did millions of research grant money go?

January 05, 2008

What’s in a name? Where did millions of research grant money go?

The Journal News in New York has printed a two-part series this week reporting on one of the biggest scandals to rock clinical research in years. The CFO of the Institute for Cancer Prevention (IFCP) in Valhalla during 2001-2003 just admitted to lying to federal agents to cover up the Institute’s misuse of millions of dollars of government grant money for cancer research. While he could face up to ten years in prison, the paper reports that he’ll likely be sentenced to 12-18 months.

Why has the mainstream media not saturated the news with this disturbing story? Learning more about the IFCP uncovered even more troubling news.

The IFCP had declared bankruptcy in 2004 and abruptly ceased operations after federal investigators discovered it had taken $5.7 million in federal grants during 2002-2003. The Labor Department was also investigating allegations that six months of missing employee pension contributions had also been diverted. There was even a missing framed letter from Albert Einstein that had hung in its conference room, according to the New York Post. All 95 employees had been laid off and their health insurance cut off, while top executives enjoyed plush offices and lavish salaries. This story was almost solely reported back then by the New York Post [archived here]. As it said, the U.S. Justice Department began fighting in Bankruptcy Court to try and get the government’s millions back, but there were also millions of dollars in claims for other unpaid bills.

In January 2007, the U.S. Department of Justice had settled against the former president, officers and Board of Trustees of the Institute on civil charges of false claims and alleged unlawful receipt and use of federal grant money [FBI document here; court document here]. These administrators had agreed to pay $2.3 million; the Institute’s financial services firm paid another $400,000; and its auditor paid $500,000.

But these episodes are not the first time that the IFCP has been in trouble for embezzling federal grant money. According to court records, previously, in February 2000, IFCP (then known as the American Health Foundation) had agreed to repay the federal government nearly $4 million to settle a federal lawsuit for allegedly improperly withdrawing millions of dollars of federal grant money from September 1991 through December 1994.

The IFCP derived about 90% of its revenue from federal grants and contracts from the National Institutes of Health through the National Cancer Institute, according to court investigations. Amounts it received have been reported as approximately $15 million in taxpayer funds a year. The IFCP has been favored by the National Institutes of Health and named a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center.

The IFCP was incorporated in 1968, 35 years ago, under the name the American Health Foundation to be the national agency “to serve as a rallying point for advancing interest and action in preventive medicine.” It was also the lead organizer of National Cancer Prevention Month. According to the Foundation’s Statement of Purpose, it “was established with the conviction that our society needed an organization of professionals and laymen to help foster a national commitment to the concepts and techniques of preventive medicine.”

It was founded by Ernst L. Wynder, M.D., who continued as its President until his death from thyroid cancer in 1999. He was also Editor-in-Chief of the publication Preventive Medicine, which was published “to provide a forum for research of the type engaged in by Foundation scientists,” according to a 1996 historical review. By 1994, the Foundation had published 2,376 papers focused on “lifestyle-associated disease risk factors,” Preventive Medicine reported.

In an American Health Foundation pamplet from 1996 [archived here], its Board wrote:

In simple truth, a majority of the chronic illnesses and accidents which kill and afflict Americans can be considered preventable. By our own hand — by what we eat, drink, and smoke, and inactivity — we ruin our health and risk disease. By our actions and inaction, we literally invite the major chronic illnesses of heart disease, cancer, and stroke that wreak such human havoc. The more we learn of the conditions which lead to disease, the more we realize that good health care is an obligation which every person owes himself, his family, and society... but, unhappily, it is an obligation which most people fail to accept.

Preventive medicine is the task of our total society — the legislative branches of government, voluntary health organizations, education, industry, the health professions, the communications media, and the man in the street.

The IFCP is the origin of today’s beliefs — coined “lifestyle medicine” by Dr. Wynder — that diet and lifestyles can prevent chronic diseases, specifically lower risks of cancer by up to 70%. It has been recognized by the NCI as the only center in the country devoted to studying the relationship between cancer and diet and lifestyle behaviors.

The Institute has looked to blame bad lifestyle behaviors and fatness for causing illness and its research used to support countless programs and products. Its scientists were the first to promote the “astounding” benefits of tea and its antioxidants for modifying metabolism and aiding in the detoxification of harmful chemicals, publishing nearly 500 papers. IFCP scientists first promoted vegetables for preventing lung cancer, garlic extract for preventing colon cancer, and benefits of soy, zinc and low-fat foods for preventing cancers. Steadily, many of these associations, and the beliefs that diet can prevent cancers and chronic diseases, are not holding up to careful clinical trial evidence.

The financial wrongdoings revealed this week and years of FBI investigations and court actions gave people cause to pause — and even more to be incensed at the pilfering of untold millions of taxpayer money that should have been devoted to finding cures and effective treatments. If money can lead to such unscrupulous actions by leaders at a prestigious research institution, how might financial and political interests influence the integrity of research? These financial scandals from the top and a corporate culture defined by these objectives doesn't automatically taint all the research being done by individual scientists, but it does makes it more difficult for medical professionals and consumers to know what to trust. Dr. Roy M. Poses, M.D., at Healthcare Renewal, sponsored by the Foundation for Integrity and Responsibility in Medicine, answered these concerns in a fiery post of his own, with additional information on this saga. Well worth reading here. As he concluded:

Until we make the governance of health care organizations more transparent, accountable, ethical, and respectful of the organizations' missions, things will continue to go down hill. And until physicians, policy makers and the public become aware of the damage being done by ignorant, conflicted and corrupt leadership of health care organizations, nothing will be done at all.

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