In her first visit since being picked to lead the University of Minnesota’s embattled Psychiatry Department, Dr. Sophia Vinogradov spent an hour this week with a relative of Dan Markingson, who died by suicide in 2004 amid complaints that he had been coerced into a U schizophrenia drug study.
Vinogradov said she wanted to learn more about this dark chapter — the Markingson case led to a series of reports faulting the department’s research conduct and ethics, as well as faculty defections — while charting the department’s future.
“I intend to have a full and open dialogue with every single person that I possibly can,” Vinogradov said in a phone interview Thursday after returning to the University of California-San Francisco, where she teaches in the medical school.
Vinogradov, who takes charge of the department in August, said she wasn’t dissuaded by the long-running upheaval. In the past 12 months, a legislative audit criticized the way Markingson was recruited into a drug study by Dr. Stephen Olson, who has been suspended from clinical research. An outside consultant questioned broader methods used to recruit vulnerable patients, and the department chair, Dr. S. Charles Schulz, stepped down last spring.
Recruiting for all psychiatric studies was suspended last year until their safety can be assured, and the U instituted a series of reforms to improve research oversight.
Despite the turmoil, Vinogradov said the Psychiatry Department has many strengths, including a national reputation for cutting-edge use of brain imaging to study mental disorders.
The Markingson case also raised questions about faculty accepting research money from pharmaceutical companies, but Vinogradov said such funding has an appropriate role, when potential conflicts are monitored and reported. The most recent Medicare open payment reports show that Vinogradov received less than $1,500 total in consulting fees in 2013 and 2014, from pharmaceutical giant Hoffmann-La Roche.
The doctor’s research has been less in the area of pharmaceuticals, a major source of industry funding for psychiatric research, and more in the use of imaging to detect disorders and cognitive software programs for treatment.
“I see a place [in the U] that has just incredible potential, both for me as an individual researcher who is interested in serious mental illnesses and in nonpharmacological approaches,” she said, “but also as someone who has been developing ideas and visions about where the future of psychiatry needs to go.”
On Tuesday, Vinogradov met with Mike Howard, a close friend of the Markingson family, and offered him a spot on a consumer advisory counsel intended to keep researchers honest regarding the needs and concerns of patients and their families. A similar council at the VA hospital in San Francisco has been meaningful in her work, she added.
They also discussed the possibility of an annual research ethics lecture in Markingson’s memory, according to Howard, who said he was impressed by Vinogradov’s commitment to “learn from this and never repeat the same mistakes.”
Vinogradov said she welcomes the U’s new heightened oversight of the Psychiatry Department, as well as safety restrictions on recruitment of vulnerable patients who have been newly diagnosed.
The restrictions won’t slow the pace of research or recruitment, she said.
“You’d be surprised. Having a first episode of psychosis is the most terrifying thing you can imagine [for] a young person. And once they have had recovery from the acute symptoms, they often are desperate to understand more about what has happened to them.”