Top cancer researcher fails to disclose ties

Glare on corporate connections

By Charles Ornstein and Katie Thomas
  • Published 10.09.18
Dr. José Baselga

(This article was reported and written in a collaboration with ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative journalism organisation.)

One of the world's top breast cancer doctors failed to disclose millions of dollars in payments from drug and health care companies in recent years, omitting his financial ties from dozens of research articles in prestigious publications like The New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet .

The researcher, Dr. José Baselga, a towering figure in the cancer world, is the chief medical officer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. He has held board memberships or advisory roles with Roche and Bristol-Myers Squibb, among other corporations, has had a stake in start-ups testing cancer therapies, and played a key role in the development of breakthrough drugs that have revolutionised treatments for breast cancer.

According to an analysis by The New York Times and ProPublica, Baselga did not follow financial disclosure rules set by the American Association for Cancer Research when he was president of the group. He also left out payments he received from companies connected to cancer research in his articles published in the group's journal, Cancer Discovery. At the same time, he has been one of the journal's two editors in chief.

At a conference this year and before analysts in 2017, he put a positive spin on the results of two Roche-sponsored clinical trials that many others considered disappointments, without disclosing his relationship to the company. Since 2014, he has received more than $3 million from Roche in consulting fees and for his stake in a company it acquired.

Baselga did not dispute his relationships with at least a dozen companies. In an interview, he said the disclosure lapses were unintentional.

He stressed that much of his industry work was publicly known although he declined to provide payment figures from his involvement with some biotech start-ups. "I acknowledge that there have been inconsistencies, but that's what it is," he said. "It's not that I do not appreciate the importance."

Baselga's extensive corporate relationships - and his frequent failure to disclose them - illustrate how permeable the boundaries remain between academic research and industry, and how weakly reporting requirements are enforced by the medical journals and professional societies charged with policing them.

A decade ago, a series of scandals involving the secret influence of the pharmaceutical industry on drug research prompted the medical community to beef up its conflict-of-interest disclosure requirements. Ethicists worry that outside entanglements can shape the way studies are designed and medications are prescribed to patients, allowing bias to influence medical practice.

Disclosing those connections allows the public, other scientists and doctors to evaluate the research and weigh potential conflicts.

"If leaders don't follow the rules, then we don't really have rules," said Dr. Walid Gellad, director of the Center for Pharmaceutical Policy and Prescribing at the University of Pittsburgh. "It says that the rules don't matter."

The penalties for such ethical lapses are not severe. The cancer research group, the AACR, warns authors who fill out disclosure forms for its journals that they face a three-year ban on publishing if they are found to have financial relationships that they did not disclose. But the ban is not included in the conflict-of-interest policy posted on its website, and the group said no author had ever been barred.

Many journals and professional societies do not check conflicts and simply require authors to correct the record.

Officials at the AACR, the American Society of Clinical Oncology and The New England Journal of Medicine said they were looking into Baselga's omissions after inquiries from The New York Times and ProPublica. The Lancet declined to say whether it would look into the matter.

Christine Hickey, a spokeswoman for Memorial Sloan Kettering, said that Baselga had properly informed the hospital of his outside industry work and that it was Baselga's responsibility to disclose such relationships to entities like medical journals. The cancer centre, she said, "has a rigorous and comprehensive compliance program in place to promote honesty and objectivity in scientific research."

Asked if he planned to correct his disclosures, Baselga asked reporters what they would recommend. In a statement several days later, he said he would correct his conflict-of-interest reporting for 17 articles, including in The New England Journal of Medicine , The Lancet and the publication he edits, Cancer Discovery. He said that he did not believe disclosure was required for dozens of other articles detailing early stages of research.

New York Times News Service