The cancer center will now bar top officials from sitting on outside boards of for-profit companies, and is conducting a wide-scale review of other policies.
By Katie Thomas and Charles Ornstein for ProPublica
This article was reported and written in collaboration with The New York Times.
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, one of the world’s leading research institutions, announced on Friday that it would bar its top executives from serving on corporate boards of drug and health care companies that, in some cases, had paid them hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
Hospital officials also told the center’s staff that the executive board had made permanent a series of reforms designed to limit the ways in which its top executives and leading researchers could profit from work developed at Memorial Sloan Kettering, a nonprofit with a broad social mission that admits about 23,500 cancer patients each year.
The conflicts at Memorial Sloan Kettering, unearthed by The New York Times and ProPublica, have had a rippling effect on other leading cancer institutions across the country. Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, both of whose executives sit on corporate boards, are among the institutions reconsidering their policies on financial ties.
In the wake of reports about board memberships held by Memorial Sloan Kettering officials last fall, Dr. Craig B. Thompson, the hospital’s chief executive, resigned in October from the board of Merck. The company, which makes the blockbuster cancer drug Keytruda, had paid him about $300,000 in 2017 for his service.
The announcement on Friday was one of several steps the cancer center said it was considering as part of an institutionwide overhaul of its corporate relationships and conflict-of-interest policies. The cancer center has hired Deloitte as well as two law firms, Ropes & Gray and Debevoise & Plimpton, to help conduct its reviews.
Debra Berns, the center’s chief risk officer, also said in an email to employees that the hospital’s Board of Overseers and Managers formalized a policy enacted last fall that prohibits board members from investing in start-up companies that Memorial Sloan Kettering helped to found. In addition, it also prevents hospital employees who represent Memorial Sloan Kettering on corporate boards from accepting personal compensation, like equity stakes or stock options, from the companies.
Dr. Walid Gellad, director of the Center for Pharmaceutical Policy and Prescribing at the University of Pittsburgh, called the policy changes a “watershed moment.”
“This is highly significant, especially at such a high-profile academic center,” Gellad said in an email. “Leadership matters, and the institution has decided that their leaders should not also be concurrently leading for-profit health companies.”
When doctors enter into financial relationships with companies, the concern is that these ties can shape the way studies are designed and medications are prescribed to patients, potentially allowing bias to influence medical practice. A 2014 study in JAMA found that about 40 percent of the largest publicly traded drug companies had a leader of an academic medical center on their boards.
Berns said the Memorial Sloan Kettering board’s policy decision was intended to emphasize the hospital’s focus on education, research and treatment of patients. Dr. Nadeem R. Abu-Rustum, who is president of Memorial Sloan Kettering’s medical staff, said the policy changes were “well-received” by employees.
Memorial Sloan Kettering has been shaken by the unfolding series of conflicts of interest since September, when The Times and ProPublica reported that its chief medical officer, Dr. José Baselga, had failed to disclose millions of dollars in payments from drug and health care companies in dozens of articles in medical journals.
Baselga resigned days later, and he also stepped down from the boards of the drugmaker Bristol-Myers Squibb and Varian Medical Systems, a radiation equipment manufacturer. Earlier this month, AstraZeneca announced that it had hired Baselga to run its new oncology unit.
Additional reports detailed how other top officials had cultivated lucrative relationships with for-profit companies, including an artificial intelligence startup, Paige.AI, that was founded by a member of Memorial Sloan Kettering’s executive board, the chair of the pathology department and the head of a research lab. The hospital struck an exclusive deal with the company to license images of 25 million patient tissue slides that had been collected over decades.
Another article detailed how a hospital vice president was given a stake of nearly $1.4 million in a newly public company as compensation for representing Memorial Sloan Kettering on its board.
When news of Baselga’s disclosure lapses first became public, 12 doctors and researchers at the hospital served on the boards of publicly traded companies. The number has now dropped to nine.
On Oct. 1, some doctors at the hospital called for a no-confidence vote in Thompson’s leadership and questioned whether the industry relationships were jeopardizing the hospital’s mission.
No such vote was taken, but a day later, Thompson stepped down from the boards of Merck and Charles River Laboratories, which assists in early drug development.
The hospital task force is expected to release draft recommendations in February and will solicit feedback from employees, Berns said in the memo released Friday. The review is also expected to examine faculty membership on corporate boards, participation on companies’ scientific advisory boards, and doctors’ and researchers’ consulting relationships with drug and health care companies.
Memorial Sloan Kettering will also host a symposium in February on disclosing conflicts of interest in medical journals, in what Berns described as “a first step toward developing a common framework that harmonizes financial disclosures in research publications.”
Berns delivered details of the review at a medical staff meeting Friday morning that was also attended by Dr. Lisa DeAngelis, the hospital’s acting physician-in-chief. During the meeting, DeAngelis sought to reassure employees that hospital leaders were taking their concerns seriously while also defending the hospital’s reputation as a world-renowned cancer center, according to accounts of the meeting.
At one point, according to the accounts, DeAngelis celebrated recent good news for the institution, including the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of a new cancer drug, Vitravki, developed at the hospital.
She also cited internal research that she said showed Memorial Sloan Kettering’s treatment of the Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had received positive press that overshadowed the recent conflict-of-interest coverage.
Ginsburg is recovering from cancer surgery on her left lung that was performed at the center. The Supreme Court announced on Friday that she was still recovering and would not be on the bench next week, but that there was no evidence of any more cancer.