As described here a week ago, one of Sloan Kettering’s cancer researchers, Dr. Jose Balsega, had received compensation from pharmas that was not disclosed either to Sloan Kettering or to the editors of the journals publishing his research on the efficacy of the drugs of those pharmas. Well, Dr. Jose Balsega resigned as a result, but there are new conflicts to explore.
Sloan Kettering staff members, Dr. David Kimstra (chairman of the pathology department) and Dr. Thomas Fuchs, head of the occupational pathology lab, founded Apaige.AI. The start-up has the goal of developing algorithms that can distinguish between cancerous and benign tumors, something that they say would revolutionize cancer treatment.
As part of the arrangement, Paige.AI has been given access to Sloan Kettering’s 25 million patient tissue slides and all of the work done by its pathologists over a 25-year period. To which the pathologists responded, How come those two get to profit from all the work we have done at a nonprofit research center?
The response was that the work was so incredibly important to cancer research and access to such slides so expensive that this arrangement was the one way the AI could be developed.
The problems that emerged? For starters, the privacy of the patients. Patients have their records there for purposes of treatment and have not consented to commercial use. Another problem was the difficulty of obtaining investors. In this highly risky field, Paige.AI could not get the capital it needed. As a result, three Kettering Sloan board members became investors. On deals such as this, nonprofits must show that they did not provide assets to insiders for less than market value. However, no one bothered with an independent evaluation of the transaction, either its value or legality. There was no competitive bidding for the use of the pathology slides and work. The response of the scientists: The AI work would help everyone in cancer research and treatment and Kettering Sloan would be sharing its findings. Still, details for sales, profits, and their distribution remain a mystery. No worries though, Dr. Balsega is on the advisory board of Paige.AI and can handle deftly any conflicts issues that might arise.
As for the pathologists, they say they are not interested in compensation. What they are interested in is input into how, why, and when their work can be transferred and on the interests of patients.
Brilliant scientists still need help with conflicts — Dr. Klimstra’s response was that the only thing he cared about more than his family was running the pathology department. Ergo, in the minds of medical researchers, there is no conflict. Oh, but there is, This deal that needed non-scientific vetting, supervision, disclosure, and some legal advice. Nobody at one of the nation’s finest seemed to be able to spot the issues, conflicts, or the appearance of impropriety.