A star cancer scientist failed to disclose industry payments over the years — does that matter so much?
During the big ASCO conference at the beginning of last June, prominent Memorial Sloan Kettering scientist José Baselga had this to say about the data he had collected for an experimental PI3K drug at Roche called taselisib:
This is proof that targeting the PI3K pathway has an effect in breast cancer and that there are patients who will benefit. To me that is incredibly exciting.
Roche, however, was not nearly so enthusiastic.
Soon after, the pharma giant would dump the whole thing, writing off another drug in a severely disappointing class that couldn’t muster a strong enough effect to make it worthwhile to push it to the market.
What may not have been well known at the time was that Baselga’s enthusiastic endorsement arrived after he had collected $50,000 in consulting fees from Roche over the previous four years, and had also bagged a $3 million payment for his share of the sale of Seragon, a high-profile cancer biotech that went to Roche for $725 million.
There isn’t anything unusual about those payments. Baselga is a highly sought after investigator, board member and scientific adviser and has long been known as one of the top experts in the field — the kind any biopharma would like to have in its corner. What stands out, though, is that according to a piece published by The New York Times and ProPublica over the weekend, Baselga has routinely failed to disclose his income from a roster of biotech and pharma companies that he had done work for over the years, both among the journals which eagerly published his work as well as organizations like ASCO, where he headlined major presentations.
Baselga didn’t deny it. He went on to amend his work on 17 papers, but shrugged off numerous other instances where he hadn’t cited his potential conflicts of interest, saying it was never necessary. As for the times he had failed to make a necessary disclosure about his financial ties, well, he said, his working ties with biopharma are well known and any such cases were simple inconsistencies.
Others, though, weren’t quite ready to let him off the hook. If someone of Baselga’s stature won’t take these disclosures seriously, why would anyone?
“If leaders don’t follow the rules, then we don’t really have rules,” Walid Gellad, director of the Center for Pharmaceutical Policy and Prescribing at the University of Pittsburgh, told the authors of the report. “It says that the rules don’t matter.”
The absence of Baselga’s roster of industry conflicts also erases some important context for his endorsements of experimental drugs, like taselisib.
The report triggered some interesting chatter on Twitter over the last two days. And we have a snap poll on the issue we’d like you to participate in, which you can see below the Twitter exchange.
The reaction universally among academic researchers on my email has been this is appalling. So. Take that.
— Ben Davies MD (UroLuddite) (@daviesbj) September 9, 2018
Let’s presume he had disclosed. Would it make any difference to acceptance of articles or what his patients or colleagues do. We have yet to figure out what COI means or how to manage it in a health care world where industry ties are everywhere.
— Arthur Caplan (@ArthurCaplan) September 9, 2018
It could very well led to more questioning of his Roche comments, and more skepticism of his arguments. Those are small effects, but they could matter a lot downstream.
— Matthew Herper (@matthewherper) September 9, 2018
Snap poll for Endpoints readers
Image: José Baselga. AURA BIOSCIENCES