Academia, People, Surveys

MSK’s José Baselga steps off Bristol-Myers’ board as the industry debates the controversy over industry ties

The damage report from the controversy surrounding Memorial Sloan Kettering’s chief physician José Baselga keeps mounting.

Late on Friday came word from Bristol-Myers Squibb that Baselga had resigned from the big biotech’s board of directors.

“Bristol-Myers Squibb $BMY is committed to the highest standards of ethics, compliance and integrity,” noted the company in a brief statement. “These principles are central to the Company’s mission and our ability to deliver innovative medicines to patients with serious disease.”

Baselga had only joined the board 5 months ago.

That resignation came several days after The New York Times and ProPublica reported that the renowned cancer researcher had routinely failed to follow the rules and cite his many financial ties with biopharma companies in journal articles and at conferences, forcing his ouster at Memorial Sloan Kettering.

Late Thursday word spread that the article had set off a storm of controversy, triggering a chain reaction of alarm at MSK that prompted the scientist to turn in his letter of resignation. In it, he wrote:

I fear my continued role leading clinical care and research will become too much of a distraction to the hospital and its remarkable team of physicians, researchers and staff.

Baselga, the once highly sought after physician-in-chief at MSK, also accepted responsibility for his failures to disclose his many ties to pharma and biotech companies, adding that those links were also well known and carefully reported to MSK itself.

The news triggered a frenzy of comments on Twitter, with a mix of views on the sudden downfall of a widely celebrated researcher. If nothing else, it will put a spotlight on the growing financial connections between researchers and the industry — and likely trigger a rush to fill in any gaps on disclosures in the coming weeks.

Quite a few people felt that forcing Baselga out at MSK was excessive. But it’s also clear that properly reporting these ties is a serious concern for the industry. We put up a poll for people at the beginning of the week, and drew more than a few harsh rebukes for what he had failed to do.

Out of 447 responses, 330 — 74% — felt his failure to report financial ties was a significant issue. Only 26% felt it was not. Significant, though, meant different things to different people. 

Here’s a sampling of the comments we heard:

It’s unacceptable and unethical. It hurts a lot the already bad reputation of pharma industry and of all the honest people and excellent professionals who work in clinical development. I am specially touched by his unethical behavior as I work in pharma/CROs and try to do my job as best as possible with the highest ethical standards I can and have.
Not disclosing undermines the goal of the entire process. The information should be provided and available. Whether it influences a stakeholder’s decision one way or another is secondary to the fundamental disclosure process. – John Ciallella, Charles River Labs
Significant enough to call him out and have the disclosures corrected but not worthy of a major expose or alarm. He’s not the first or last researcher who didn’t disclose something. Don’t condone it but lets not overreact either. Just set clear guidelines and enforce them.
I’d define significance as rising to a criminal, civil or ethical breach. And that breach depends on intent. It is fairly clear that his intent was not to deceive and this was an oversight. He made an error. What is much more significant was the shoddy ‘gotcha’ journalism that implied malign intent without proving it. – David Weisman, MD
I don’t think this particular failure to disclose conflicts was significant since Baselga’s consulting agreements/ad board memberships are pretty much public knowledge. However, this should be a sign to journals, conferences and other publishing entities to improve their processes to always ensure authors adhere to their disclosure agreements. For pivotal studies, FDA collects financial disclosure forms for all primary investigators *and* subinvestigators, which is submitted with the clinical data.
The relationship of trust between patients and doctors is fundamental to our medical system. This systematic failure to comply with widely-accepted standards of conflict disclosure undermines that foundation, while also providing a bad example to younger researchers and a good cover to unscrupulous researchers. Why should anyone disclose their conflicts when someone as acclaimed as Dr. Baselga does not?

Image: José Baselga. ASCO


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Director, Financial Planning and Analysis
Molecular Templates Austin, TX
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Molecular Templates Austin, TX
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Koneksa Health New York, NY

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