By Charles Ornstein, ProPublica, and Katie Thomas, The New York Times
Top researchers at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center have filed at least six corrections with medical journals recently, divulging financial relationships with health care companies that they did not previously disclose.
The hospital’s chief executive, Dr. Craig B. Thompson, disclosed his relationship with companies including the drugmaker Merck, and Dr. Jedd Wolchok, a noted pioneer in cancer immunotherapy, listed his affiliations with 31 companies.
The corrections followed the resignation in September of Dr. José Baselga, the cancer center’s chief medical officer, who had failed to disclose his company ties in dozens of articles in medical journals, including prominent publications like the New England Journal of Medicine. Baselga’s omissions, including payments totaling millions of dollars, were first reported last month by ProPublica and The New York Times.
Since then, medical centers around the country, including Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and NYU Langone Health, have urged their researchers to review whether they properly reported relationships to outside companies.
According to a correction posted Sept. 17 in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, Thompson’s conflict-of-interest statement had not been included in an article published in January. The updated disclosure noted his role as a founder of Agios Pharmaceuticals, a cancer startup, and his position on the boards of two publicly traded companies, Merck and Charles River Laboratories, which assists research in early drug discovery.
Thompson received $300,000 from Merck in 2017 and was paid $70,000 in cash by Charles River, plus $215,050 in stock, according to the companies’ financial filings. His compensation package as Memorial Sloan Kettering’s chief executive is $6.7 million.
Thompson resigned from both company boards on Oct. 2, after weeks of internal turmoil at the nonprofit hospital and public scrutiny of its leaders’ financial relationships with for-profit companies.
In a statement, Mike Morey, a spokesman for Memorial Sloan Kettering, said the hospital had instructed its researchers to review their conflict-of-interest disclosures and submit corrections where necessary.
Morey also said that a “patchwork” of disclosure requirements by different publications has complicated matters. “In many cases, researchers are now disclosing above and beyond what is asked for and required, even when their disclosures have no connection to the research they conducted,” he said, adding that Memorial Sloan Kettering has created a task force to establish its own standards. “This is a massive, industrywide problem.”
In a statement, Thompson said his correction arose from the broader review. “I was no different,” he said. Of the more than 70 articles he published since arriving at the hospital in 2010, he said, “I identified one study in my review, of which I was a secondary author, that I thought should be updated.”
Some of the omissions were extensive. In an updated disclosure, Wolchok, director of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at the hospital, outlined his ties to many companies, including receiving consulting fees, owning stock options or being a co-founder. The list of companies that pay him range from major manufacturers like Bristol-Myers Squibb and Merck, for whom he works as a paid for consultant, to startups like BeiGene, Apricity and Adaptive Biotech, in which he reports owning stock options.
He corrected twoarticles in the journal Cancer Cell and a third in the Journal of Clinical Investigation. Wolchok is a widely regarded expert in immunotherapy, having treated some of the first patients with a drug based on the work of Dr. James P. Allison, who along with Tasuku Honjo won this year’s Nobel Prize for Medicine.
Other Memorial Sloan Kettering researchers on Wolchok’s papers also updated their interactions with industry, including Dr. Matthew D. Hellmann, Taha Merghoub and Dr. Michael A. Postow.
“Although the below additional disclosures are not directly relevant to the published work, the authors put them forward in the spirit of full transparency,” one correction said. “The authors apologize for any inconvenience.”
Wolchok did not disclose most of his 31 relationships in articles recently published in other journals, including the New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA and Lancet Oncology. Wolchok has been paid more than $90,000 from major drug companies since 2014, according to a federal database that only includes payments from companies whose products received approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Most of his relationships are with early-stage startups.
Wolchok said he conducted a review of more than 300 articles and decided to submit updated disclosures on some of them “out of an abundance of caution.” Some journals, including Cancer Discovery, “have rejected these updates because they have determined they are not relevant to the subject matter,” Wolchok said in a statement.
Morey said that existing disclosures in the other articles, including those published in the New England Journal of Medicine, were appropriate, based on Wolchok’s interpretation of the journals’ guidelines.
Although medical journals vary in their requirements, many urge researchers to err on the side of revealing a company relationship. One set of guidelines published by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors advises authors: “You should disclose interactions with ANY entity that could be considered broadly relevant to the work.” As an example, it says for a researcher studying a particular aspect of lung cancer, “you should report all associations with entities pursuing diagnostic or therapeutic strategies in cancer in general.”
Other corrections involved Dr. Michelle Bradbury, who is the head of a research laboratory at Memorial Sloan Kettering and a director in the radiology department. In twocorrections published Monday in the journal Chemistry of Materials, Bradbury and other study authors said that they should have disclosed that two of them, as well as their institutions — Memorial Sloan Kettering and Cornell University — have a financial interest in Elucida Oncology. The original articles were published in 2017.
Bradbury is a co-founder and serves on the scientific advisory board of Elucida, which is exploring the use of nanoparticles in cancer detection and treatment, a focus of the articles. Another author, Dr. Ulrich Wiesner of Cornell University, is also a company co-founder and a member of its scientific advisory board. (Wolchok is also on the Elucida scientific advisory board, which he noted in one of his corrections.)
The corrections also said that “one or more” patent applications had been filed by the authors on topics related to the articles. The corrections to Bradbury’s studies were first reported by the website Retraction Watch.
“In a handful of cases, even though the research in these publications was very early stage and rooted in basic science, my co-author from Cornell and I decided we would update them,” Bradbury said in an email. A spokesman for Cornell referred comment to Memorial Sloan Kettering.
Baselga has also corrected his conflict-of-interest disclosures in several journals, including twoin the New England Journal of Medicine, three in Clinical Cancer Research and two in Cancer Discovery, where he is still one of two editors in chief. The American Association for Cancer Research, which publishes Cancer Discovery, said it had formed a panel of experts to evaluate whether he should remain in a leadership role.
He has also revised disclosures with the American Society of Clinical Oncology, which said that if Baselga participates in future meetings, “his slides will be subject to review in advance of his presentation and the session will be audited by ASCO staff and volunteers for any evidence of bias.” ASCO also said that if Baselga again does not disclose his interactions properly, he would be “prohibited from presenting in any capacity (author, session chair, discussant, etc.) at an ASCO-sponsored meeting for the following two years.”
Beyond revisiting disclosures, Memorial Sloan Kettering is undertaking a broader review of its staff’s interactions with the health care and pharmaceutical industries, including whether senior leaders should sit on the boards of publicly traded companies. It also said it would hire an outside law firm to investigate specific allegations made following Baselga’s departure.
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