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Addiction researcher quietly leaves UVa

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Posted: Friday, August 16, 2013 9:43 pm | Updated: 9:45 pm, Fri Aug 16, 2013.

A University of Virginia department chairman nationally known for his addiction research has resigned less than 10 months after a subordinate won an $820,000 whistleblower lawsuit filed against the school, officials said Friday.

Dr. Bankole Johnson quit his post as chairman of UVa’s Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences earlier this month. School officials initially were mum on the reason, saying he’d stay on as a professor. But officials said Friday that Johnson had accepted an appointment to lead the psychiatry department at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore.  

Johnson, who could not be reached for comment, sent a farewell letter to faculty members. He said the move would bring him closer to family and friends, and allow him to spend more time on his research.

“This opportunity shall enable me to devote greater focus to my basic and translational science projects, and to advance the field,” he said.

Featured in the 2007 HBO documentary “Addiction,” Johnson is known for his advocacy of medication, rather than 12-step programs or rehabilitation, to treat addiction.

He was named in a lawsuit filed in 2011 by Weihua Huang, a UVa researcher who lost his job after charging that his supervisor altered a grant awarded him by the National Institutes of Health.

Huang claimed Johnson fired him after he reported that Ming Li, a scientist who works in the university’s Center for Addiction Research and Education, misrepresented the amount of time each researcher was spending on a project. The time spent on projects determines how much money each researcher is paid.

Earlier this year, Johnson declared a potential conflict of interest in one of his research projects. That led the NIH to put a temporary hold on funding for the work until UVa could come up with an oversight plan, officials said.

“The idea here … is to ensure that whatever the outcome is, it’s based on science and research,” Eric Swensen, a spokesman for the UVa Health System, said when asked about the issue earlier this week.

Johnson cited the potential conflict involving his company, ADial Pharmaceuticals, located in the UVa Research Park off Fontaine Avenue in Charlottesville. ADial’s website lists Li on the company’s seven-member Board of Directors, headed by Johnson as CEO.

The project cited in the potential conflict seeks to examine the effects of Topiramate on people with different genetic makeups, Swensen said. According to ADial’s website, the company is developing two drugs to help treat alcoholism. Topiramate is listed as an ingredient in one of the drugs.  

Titled “Pharmacogenetic Treatments for Alcoholism,” the project received $543,690 in NIH funding in 2012. It was supposed to receive $417,578 by the end of this year.

That money won’t come, however, until the university hosting the project produces the oversight plan, officials said. That task will follow Johnson and the project to the University of Maryland, Swensen said. The plan would include an ombudsman to oversee the management of school and federal grant money.

Dr. Anita H. Clayton will step in as interim director of UVa’s Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences, Swensen said. The university will conduct a national search for Johnson’s successor, Swensen said.

Swensen sent an email to faculty saying Johnson was leaving to pursue a new opportunity.

“We want to wish Dr. Johnson the best in his future endeavors,” Swensen said.

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