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September 11, 2018

Memorial Sloan Kettering CEO to staff: 'Do a better job' of disclosing industry ties

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    Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center CEO Craig Thompson in an email Sunday called for the center's staff members "to do a better job" of disclosing industry ties after a ProPublica and New York Times analysis found one of the center's top executives failed to disclose industry connections, ProPublica and the Times report.

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    Nearly a decade ago, a number of scandals over physicians' ties to the pharmaceutical industry prompted medical journals and professional societies to tighten disclosure requirements. Most major medical journals and professional societies ask authors and presenters to provide a list of recent financial ties. However, according to ProPublica and the Times, "much of this reporting still relies on the honor system."

    Analysis details

    With this issue in mind, ProPublica and the Times examined whether one of Memorial Sloan Kettering's top executives, José Baselga, followed the financial disclosure rules implemented by prestigious journals, including the Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine, and professional societies, such as the American Association for Cancer Research. Baselga is the cancer center's CMO and is a "towering figure in the cancer world," according to ProPublica/the Times.

    For the analysis, ProPublica and the Times reviewed Open Payments—the federal database tracking payments from health care companies to physicians—for payments to Baselga since 2013, when he came to Memorial Sloan Kettering.


    ProPublica and the Times found Baselga received at least about $3.5 million in payments from diagnostic, drug, and medical equipment companies from August 2014 through 2017. It's unclear, ProPublica and the Times report, how much Baselga received from other health companies, such as bio-tech startups without FDA-approved products, that are not required to report for the Open Payments database.

    According to ProPublica and the Times, Baselga often did not disclose his financial ties. In particular, ProPublica and the Times reports that Baselga "appears to have violated" of the American Association for Cancer Researcher's financial disclosure rules when he was president in 2015 and 2016. Further, according to the analysis, Baselga "left out" payments from companies affiliated with research in articles of his in the Cancer Discovery, the association's journal.

    According to the analysis, Baselga in a 2015 article published in The New England Journal of Medicine on a Roche drug said he had "nothing to disclose," despite having financial connections to the drugmaker. Further, Baselga spoke favorably about the results of a study on a Roche drug that had produced results generally considered "underwhelming," according to ProPublica and the Times. While results led Roche's stock to drop 5%, Baselga called critiques "weird" and "strange."


    In an interview with ProPublica and the Times, Baselga acknowledged that at times he did not disclose his industry connections and said the lapses were unintentional. Baselga said he planned to address his failure to disclosure industry ties in 17 recently published articles, but he indicated that he would not address his industry connections in other cases because those involved early-stage research for which there were few financial implications, ProPublica and the Times report. He said, "I acknowledge that there have been inconsistencies, but that's what it is. It's not that I do not appreciate the importance" of financial disclosures.

    The American Society of Clinical Oncology, American Association for Cancer Research, the NEJM, and other institutions said they are beginning to review Baselga's disclosures. The NEJM in comments to the Times and ProPublica acknowledged that there is a "widespread" problem with failed disclosures. NEJM said it plans to improve its system for tracking authors' disclosures.

    Memorial Sloan Kettering executives: 'The matter of disclosure is serious'

    Thompson and Kathryn Martin, the cancer center's chief operating officer, in an email to their staff addressing the ProPublica and Times analysis wrote, "The matter of disclosure is serious" and that the center's staff members "need to do a better job" of disclosing their ties to the health care industry, because "[c]ollaboration with industry leaders, from early stage start-ups to large corporations, is necessary to focus on bringing better treatments to patients" (Ornstein/Thomas, ProPublica/New York Times, 9/9; Ornstein/Thomas, ProPublica/New York Times, 9/8).

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