A Crucial Presidential Gesture: Portfolio Transparency
One of the issues that tripped up both of the last two MD Anderson presidents was conflict of interest. Essentially, both Dr. Mendelson and Dr. DePinho allowed their personal financial positions to contain the stock of companies whose products were being tested at the institution they ran. This is the definition of conflict of interest and no absolution by Pope Ken Shine could undo Dr. DePinho’s and Dr. Chin’s conflicts.
In the first case, Dr. Mendelsohn was a major stockholder and advisor to ImClone, maker of Erbitux, the drug he developed, when that product was being tested at Anderson. The patients getting the experimental agent were unaware of his holdings and at one point he cashed in some of his stock for millions of dollars. Eventually the media caught on and I, personally, had to defend all of this. I was excoriated along with Dr. Mendelsohn in the Chronicle after the Washington Post broke the story.
Dr. DePinho took conflict of interest to an even higher level (or is that lower) than his predecessor for along with stock conflicts, he delved into self-dealing by pushing his own stock on national television while being interviewed as president of a public institution and, of course, there was the institutionalized nepotism embodied by Dr. Chin. The behavior of the last two presidents has not been exemplary. How can Dr. Pisters avoid this?
He can publish the contents of his portfolio on a web site and dump any biotech, drug company, or biomedical equipment maker stock currently in the file. Contrary to the belief of many in academic medicine and certainly the current President of the United States, not to mention his cabinet, owning stock whose value your decisions can change is a conflict of interest that is not manageable. Period.
Dr. Pisters strikes me as both a knowledgeable and honest man. He also has three children for whom he and his wife have probably saved over the years. But now Dr. Pisters carries the burden of the presidency of the number one cancer hospital in America and a major player in cancer research. The data that emanate from MD Anderson matter. The value of the drugs, and the stocks of the companies making those drugs, evaluated at Anderson fluctuate based on the results of laboratory research and clinical trials done at Anderson. The wealth in the personal portfolios of the leadership cannot be dependent on the actions of the faculty reporting to these men and women. Period. And the faculty must be free of any conflicts as well. If a faculty member wants to spin off a company—great. Either someone else runs the company and evaluates its products or the faculty member does it after resigning his or her faculty position. You can’t keep your university salary and run a business at the same time and assure the people of Texas they are getting what they pay for when they pick up your salary.
The number one product of MD Anderson must be truth. People have to believe that the results of the research were not tainted by the benefits the results may have for those doing the research or those to whom they report.
MD Anderson shouldn’t need a conflict of interest committee. Just eliminate the conflicts and the committee will be bored.
This was a battle I fought for many years. I always lost. Both of the past two presidents thought exactly opposite to what I thought. They encouraged commercialization of Anderson research with benefits going straight to the coffers of the institution and to themselves. Such arrangements are possible, but the work that determines the value of Anderson intellectual property ought not to be done at Anderson. And there is no need for it to be. There never was. The Erbitux trials could have been done—in fact were done—elsewhere as well as at Anderson. The same can be true for any drug or technology in which the institution has a financial stake. And it should be.
But let’s start the Pisters Era on a high ethical note. Let the president and all his team of executives publicly display their stock portfolios and get rid of any holdings whose value may be altered by work done at Anderson.
It just makes good sense.