Jose Baselga is a researcher-physician who has achieved great things and brought about enormous positive impact to the world. He is credited with the development of Herceptin, a game changing drug for women with HER2 positive breast cancer, which also has applications in other HER2 positive cancers. He has done enormous good for countless people.
I met Dr. Baselga a few years ago while visiting my dear friend Gabby, who had metastatic breast cancer. I am responsible for her seeing him, actually. I had read about some work that he was doing in cancer genetics in 2013, and because she lived near to NYC, suggested to her that she seek out his opinion. At the time, I was not aware that he was Physician in Chief for Memorial Sloan-Kettering, nor the depth of his influence. I simply read about a physician who was focused in Gabby’s particular flavor of cancer. She had arrived to point of medical complication that we both understood and agreed upon: There is time to follow protocol, and there is a time to be with those who write the protocols. I will never forget her squeals of delight on the phone when Dr. Baselga accepted her as a patient.
Years later, I shuttled with Gabby through Manhattan to her various appointments in different parts of the city. MSKCC has not had the luxury of contiguous space for expansion like some other cancer hospitals. Their growth has been accomplished via satellite buildings scattered across the crowded city, similar to the metastatic disease that they treat. Our long day ended with her appointment with Dr. Baselga. He was warm, encouraging, open to research ideas and collaboration, exactly as he came across in video clips that I had seen. I have to admit that I really liked him.
By this point, I was focused on my own two children and their very serious medical concerns, which would end in both of them having cancer again. I couldn’t fully stop to consider the loss of my friend. I had to come up with ideas for our own problems.
Our situation intensified. We traveled for options and clung to hope. My son died. My daughter was found with metastatic disease. I lost another dear friend to cancer. These are spare sentences, simple statements. But they cover complex events and equally complicated emotional responses. It has been an exceptionally difficult year.
In September, I read a NY Times piece that revealed that Jose Baselga had failed to declare conflict of interest and ties to industry in dozens of research articles that were published. He had received payments from pharmaceutical companies that he was partnered with on drug development projects. Shortly after this revelation, he stepped down from his position at MSKCC, and left the board of Bristol Myers Squibb. I would include the following articles, in case you are not familiar with it.
Tom Sullivan piece
While the average person, and certainly anyone distrustful of Big Pharma, would be blown away about the size of the payments, there is nothing illegal about receiving compensation. I don’t actually have a problem with researchers benefiting financially from the development of the ideas that they have discovered. Partnership between academia and industry is so important, especially for advances in cancer. It is difficult to measure the impact of Herceptin alone.
The reputation of an institution and the trust of the public in the research system is far bigger than one researcher, however gifted. A foundation of integrity is what medicine resides upon, as well as the tenant that patient care remains the first and foremost priority. This is why Baselga's departure from MSKCC was swift and complete.
I have long been playing the “What If’ game when it comes to my decisions and choices regarding my son Brent's care. Since reading these reports, I have begun questioning my failure to encourage my friend to seek other opinions and consider interesting clinical trials that might have been helpful. I recognize that this is a normal and perhaps unavoidable part of the grieving process, but I have moments where I question if I was enough. Did I serve her well?
The ripples of our actions and our omissions travel far. I spent only half an hour speaking with Jose Baselga, but it was an entirely positive and engaging conversation. My friend loved and trusted him unquestioningly. His sins of omission are most certainly haunting him today. I am going to replay the clear affection that he had for Gabby in my mind, and believe that I should not also be haunted, having put my trust in him.
I pray for redemption.