High-ranking scientists at the National Institutes of Health have questioned the impartiality of the NIH's top nutrition official in overseeing work on links between diet and cancer, according to documents obtained by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group.
The group wrote NIH's director, Dr. James B. Wyngaarden, Thursday asking him to remove Dr. Artemis Simopoulos from the chairmanship of the influential Nutrition Coordinating Committee. Michael Jacobson, the group's director, charged that Simopoulos' ties to a food industry-backed foundation had destroyed her effectiveness as a nutrition leader.
Included with the letter were copies of memos from three NIH officials -- the chiefs of the National Cancer Institute and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, and the director of NCI's division of cancer prevention -- stating that Simopoulos had failed to represent NIH nutrition policies accurately.
Jacobson said the memos were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. A copy of the letter and memos was obtained by The Washington Post.
In an interview, Simopoulos said her membership on the board of the industry-backed International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) was part of her government duties and that she was not paid by the group. She declined to comment on Jacobson's letter or the memos, saying it was an internal NIH matter to which Wyngaarden would respond.
Wyngaarden was unavailable yesterday. A spokesman said he had not yet seen Jacobson's letter.
In the memos, NIH scientists expressed concern that Simopoulos' personal views about the relationship between diet and cancer -- favoring further research rather than specific dietary recommendations limiting fat intake -- had influenced her ability to remain impartial as a key NIH spokesman in her field. Dr. Peter Greenwald, director of NCI's division of cancer prevention and control, in a Nov. 1 memo to Simopoulos, criticized a "lack of balance" in her planning of an ILSI conference this February on the roles of calorie intake, dietary fat content, overweight and exercise in cancer development.
ILSI sponsors research on subjects such as caffeine, food additives and sweeteners. Its $3 million annual budget comes almost entirely from major corporations, including most of the nation's major food and soft-drink manufacturers.
Noting that he had agreed to participate to provide balance, Greenwald wrote Simopoulos, ". . . You appear to have given key roles to a few persons predisposed to denying ill effects of dietary fat and postponing as long as possible any specific recommendations in this area."
Suggesting that the program should include scientists with an opposing view, he concluded, "I continue to be concerned that you personally have strong opinions about diet and cancer and are very selective about what gets presented to the NIH leadership and others . . . ."
Simopoulos responded in a memo Nov. 5, stating: "It is not a conference to support anyone's policy . . . . The program is balanced with the various points of view being properly represented."
Her reply prompted a Nov. 8 memo from the NCI's director, Dr. Vincent T. DeVita Jr., which said, ". . . You are not conducting the business of the Nutrition Coordinating Committee (NCC) in a way that accurately reflects the policies and programs of the various Institutes . . . . The NCI wants the NCC to foster coordinated nutrition research at the NIH, not serve as an impediment . . . ."
In a Nov. 4 note to Wyngaarden, Dr. Claude Lenfant, director of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, said: ". . . the Nutrition Coordinating Committee operates as if it were independent and not part of NIH . . . ."
Greenwald, DeVita and Lenfant could not be reached yesterday for comment.
Simopoulos said the ILSI conference was not designed to influence government policies on diet and cancer, but to air scientific findings. She said her involvement in ILSI promoted valid research.
ILSI "is nonprofit, and I think science, no matter where it comes from -- science based on truth -- has the possibility and probability of influencing anything," she said. "This is a pluralistic society, and multiple sources of support for research are essential."
Michael W. Pariza, a University of Wisconsin nutrition researcher who worked with Simopoulos to plan the ILSI conference, said, "As far as I can tell, I think she's doing a great job" at NIH. "She certainly is extremely well-qualified."