According to a collaboration between ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization and The New York Times, Dr. José Baselga- one of the world’s top breast cancer doctors and researchers- “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.”1

Until the expose came out, Baselga was the chief medical officer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Therefore this revelation was huge. Baselga didn’t just hold down a job there, he held board memberships or advisory roles with Roche and Bristol-Myers Squibb (among other), “had a stake in start-ups testing cancer therapies, and played a key role in the development of breakthrough drugs that “revolutionized” treatments for breast cancer.”2(That word is a stretch. Slashing and burning aren’t words I’d call “revolutionary”.)

However, that all came crashing to the ground a week after the analysis by The New York Times and ProPublica came out:

“After the conflicts—involving millions of dollars—were enumerated in an article published Sept. 9, Baselga attempted a mea culpa strategy while MSK pointed out that disclosure rules are vague and inconsistent.

The Cancer Letter’s analysis of documents that emerged during this imbroglio demonstrates that Baselga didn’t apply standard rules for disclosure, apparently believing, for example, that, in papers dealing with basic and translational research, conflicts are not subject to disclosure. Similarly, he seemed to believe that no disclosure was needed in papers on compounds that are no longer viable.

Documents made public during this controversy but until now not analyzed publicly suggest that Baselga’s interpretation of disclosure was so idiosyncratic that all 178 papers that list him as an author during his time at MSK could be tainted. He disclosed conflicts on 72 of those papers, but adequacy of disclosure may need to be examined. The remaining papers—where no disclosure was made—add up to 105.”3

Baselga did not follow financial disclosure rules set by the American Association for Cancer Research and left out payments he received from companies connected to cancer research in his articles published in the group’s journal, while he was one of the journal’s two editors in chief.

And when this story came out, he played dumb. And said sorry. A lot. He even wrote some letters (see one below):4

From: Baselga, Jose T./Physician-in-Chief

Subject: message from Jose Baselga

Dear MSK Colleagues,

I apologize if any of the coverage and comments in the New York Times and ProPublica has caused any of my colleagues at MSK any embarrassment or professional or personal discomfort.

I take responsibility for failing to make appropriate disclosures in scientific and medical journals and at professional meetings. I have already updated disclosures in medical journals and will continue to do so until the record is complete.

I want to be clear that while I may have been inconsistent in disclosing, the article does not question the validity of the research and the studies that were published.

I am committed to transparency and accountability in all of our dealings. That is my goal and I know I need to do better. I know you share my commitment to developing new treatments and medicines that will help our patients suffering from cancer.

I will be meeting with my team to discuss the article and will set up an opportunity to answer your questions and concerns.  I value your inputs and trust.

Best regards,

Jose

However, it feels like a man in his position should know better. And if he didn’t, it seems like he should have known who to contact. But he didn’t.

Why?

Money.

Dr. Baselga, 59:5

  • was paid more than $1.5 million in compensation by the cancer center in 2016, according to the hospital’s latest available tax disclosures, but that does not include his consulting or board fees from outside companies
  • from August 2013 through 2017, received nearly $3.5 million from nine companies, according to the federal Open Payments database, which compiles disclosures filed by drug and device companies
  • and in 2017, he received $260,000 in cash and stock awards to sit on Varian’s board of directors, according to the company’s corporate filings

“ProPublica and The Times analyzed Dr. Baselga’s publications in medical journals since 2013, the year he joined Memorial Sloan Kettering. He failed to disclose any industry relationships in more than 100, or about 60 percent of the time, a figure that has increased with each passing year. Last year, he did not list any potential conflicts in 87 percent of the articles that he wrote or co-wrote.”6

Here is a list of just some of Dr. José Baselga’s known relationships with health care companies, former relationships are marked with an * (notice, this is not a small list):7

Board of Directors

  • Aura Biosciences* (cancer startup)
  • Bristol-Myers Squibb
  • Foghorn Therapeutics (cancer startup)
  • Grail* (cancer testing startup)
  • Infinity Pharmaceuticals* (cancer startup)
  • Varian Medical Systems (radiation equipment)

Paid Consultant

  • AstraZeneca*
  • Eli Lilly*
  • Novartis*
  • Roche/Genentech*

Scientific or Clinical Advisory Board

  • ApoGen Biotechnologies (cancer startup)
  • Aura Biosciences (cancer startup)
  • Grail (cancer testing startup)
  • Juno Therapeutics*
  • Northern Biologics (cancer startup)
  • Paige.AI (pathology startup)
  • Peptomyc* (cancer startup)
  • PMV Pharmaceuticals (cancer startup)
  • Seragon Pharmaceuticals* (breast cancer)

Founder or Co-Founder

  • Mosaic Biomedicals
  • Tango Therapeutics (cancer startup)

While most major medical journals and professional societies ask authors to list relationships that could be a conflict, it really relies on the honor system. Perhaps it’s time for that to stop. Especially for something as serious as this.

When people in power like Baselga don’t follow the rules, then we might as well not have them. And actually, we really don’t. When there is no transparency, there is no trust. And the medical establishment, who continue to lie and cover up, wonder why we don’t trust them.

To read the full collaborative story, click here.

Sources:

  1. The New York Times
  2. The New York Times
  3. Cancer Letter
  4. Cancer Letter
  5. The New York Times
  6. The New York Times
  7. The New York Times