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Top Sloan Kettering Cancer Doctor Resigns After Failing to Disclose Industry Ties

Category: Health & Fitness,Lifestyle

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

Dr. José Baselga, the chief medical officer of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, resigned on Thursday amid reports that he had failed to disclose millions of dollars in payments from health care companies in dozens of research articles.

The hospital’s chief executive, Dr. Craig B. Thompson, confirmed the resignation.

The revelations about Dr. Baselga’s disclosure lapses, reported by The New York Times and ProPublica last weekend, have rocked Memorial Sloan Kettering, one of the nation’s leading cancer centers, in recent days. Its top executives scrambled to contain the fallout, including urgent meetings of physician leaders and the executive committee of its board of directors.

Dr. Baselga could not be immediately reached for comment.

On Sunday, Dr. Thompson and Kathryn Martin, the hospital’s chief operating officer, sent a message to the staff instructing employees to “do a better job” of disclosing their relationships with the drug and health care industries.

“The matter of disclosure is serious,” the executives wrote.

Dr. Baselga, a prominent figure in the world of cancer research, omitted his financial ties to companies like the Swiss drugmaker Roche and several small biotech start-ups in prestigious medical publications like The New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet. He also failed to disclose any company affiliations in articles he published in the journal Cancer Discovery, for which he serves as one of two editors in chief.

All told, ProPublica and The Times found that Dr. Baselga had failed to report any industry ties in 60 percent of the nearly 180 papers he had published since 2013. That figure increased each year — he did not disclose any relationships in 87 percent of the journal articles he co-authored last year.

In an interview and later statement, Dr. Baselga said he planned to correct his conflict-of-interest disclosures in 17 journal articles, including in The New England Journal and The Lancet. But he also contended that in dozens of other cases, no disclosure was required because the topics of the articles had little financial implication. He also said his failed disclosures were unintentional and should not reflect on the value of the research he conducted.

Dr. Baselga and Memorial Sloan Kettering said that he had disclosed his industry relationships to the cancer center.

Those journals, as well as professional societies like the American Society of Clinical Oncology and the American Association for Cancer Research, said they were conducting reviews of Dr. Baselga’s disclosure practices after inquiries from The Times and ProPublica. Dr. Baselga was president of the A.A.C.R. in 2015 and 2016 and appears to have violated disclosure rules for reporting conflicts of interest during that period.

A spokeswoman for The New England Journal, Jennifer Zeis, said in an email Thursday that Dr. Baselga had submitted changes to his disclosures but that editors had questions for him before the articles could be corrected. A spokeswoman for the A.A.C.R. said that organization was continuing to review Dr. Baselga’s disclosures.

Dr. Baselga, 59, is an expert in breast cancer research and played a key role in the development of Herceptin, which was developed by Genentech, a subsidiary of Roche. He came to Memorial Sloan Kettering in 2013 after serving as chief of hematology and oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Before that he was a leader at the Vall d’Hebron Institute of Oncology in Barcelona, Spain.

Medical journals and professional societies have imposed stricter rules about reporting relationships to industry after a series of scandals a decade ago in which prominent physicians failed to disclose payments from drug companies. But medical journals have said they don’t routinely fact-check authors’ disclosures, and much is left to the honor system.

Ethicists say that outside relationships with companies can shape the way studies are designed and medications are prescribed to patients, allowing bias to influence medical practice. Reporting those ties allows the public, other scientists and doctors to evaluate the research and weigh potential conflicts.

Dr. Baselga has extensive ties to a range of companies, including sitting on the board of the large pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb and serving as a director of Varian Medical Systems, which sells radiation equipment and for whom Memorial Sloan Kettering is a client.

Dr. Baselga has served on the boards of at least four other companies since 2013, and the positions required him to assume a fiduciary responsibility to protect the interests of those companies, even as he oversaw the cancer center’s medical operations. Dr. Baselga and Memorial Sloan Kettering have said the cancer center has put firewalls in place to prevent any conflicts.

Dr. Baselga received nearly $3.5 million in payments from drug, medical equipment and diagnostic companies from August 2013 through 2017, according to Open Payments, a federal database that tracks payments to physicians from health care companies. Most of that amount, about $3 million, involved a payment from Genentech for Dr. Baselga’s ownership interest in a company it acquired, Seragon Pharmaceuticals, in 2014.

But the $3.5 million in the Open Payments database does not include payments from companies that don’t have products approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Such companies are not required to report their payments under federal law.

For instance, Infinity Pharmaceuticals, a start-up with no approved drug, paid Dr. Baselga nearly $250,000 in cash and stock options for serving on its board from 2015 to 2017. He declined to disclose how much he received from such companies.

Dr. Baselga was one of the highest-paid staff members at Memorial Sloan Kettering, earning more than $1.5 million in 2016, the most recent year for which the nonprofit’s financial filings are available.

Charles Ornstein is a senior editor at ProPublica.

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