A debate has emerged within the scientific community over the responsibility to disclose potential conflicts of interest, after it was revealed that a scientist involved in cancer research published by a major medical journal failed to disclose financial relationships with a number of pharmaceutical companies, raising questions about the credibility of the research.
On October 26, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a letter by Dr. José Baselga, of the Vall d’Hebron Institute of Oncology in Barcelona, Spain, revealing that he had failed to disclose years of financial dealings with a number of medical companies, such as Roche, Novartis, and Bristol-Myers Squibb.
Similar corrections were made in a number of leading medical journals following an investigation which revealed that Baselga failed to disclose millions of dollars in payments from drug companies and the health care industry in dozens of studies over the years. The investigation by The New York Times and ProPublica, led to Baselga’s resignation from the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in early September.
To date, 17 studies involving Baselga have been corrected in various journals worldwide.
The letter published in JAMA was accompanied by a correction to the original article, which was published in September 2017, as well as a number of editorials examining the need for full disclosure of industry ties in medical studies.
The correction indicates Baselga had a long list of industry links that he failed to mention in the original study. These include receiving travel reimbursement and “nonfinancial support” from Roche and Genentech, and receiving payments and stocks, and served on various scientific boards and boards of directors of Aura Biosciences, Infinity Pharmaceuticals, PMV Pharma Biotechnologies, Juno Therapeutics, Grail, Varian Medical Systems, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Seragon, ApoGen Biotechnologies, and Foghorn Therapeutics. He also received consulting and travel fees from Novartis and Eli Lilly, and was a cofounder of Venthera, Tango and Northern Biologics.
Despite his deep ties as cofounding and serving on the boards of directors for many of those companies, many of whom are deeply involved in cancer research and the development of cancer treatment products, Baselga initially claimed he had no financial ties to disclose.
An editorial by JAMA editors said proper disclosures are the responsibility of authors, and it is the responsiblity of editors to follow-up and ensure that articles accurately reflect scientific evidence and that their publications publish factual and accurate information.
Another editorial published on the same day as Baselga’s revelation by Dr. Jeffrey Botkin of the University of Utah’s School of Medicine said behavior like that of Baselga should be considered research misconduct. The editorial called for stronger conflict of interest (COI) rules by higher education institutions.
“COIs created by investigators who have a financial interest in drugs, devices, or industry sponsors of research have been a serious concern for decades,” Botkin’s stated. “On a case-by-case basis, it is difficult to demonstrate that such relationships lead directly to bias in the conduct or reporting of research but, in aggregate, there is an association between financial relationships with industry and research results that are favorable to industry.”
Botkins said that a finding of such misconduct is a serious matter and “strikes at the basic integrity of anyone who pursues a scientific career.”