Even as Memorial Sloan Kettering leaders have promised greater transparency, they have engaged a public affairs firm, SKDKnickerbocker, to manage their message and have aggressively pushed back against the idea that the hospital’s leaders are too close to industry.
“I can see how someone might think that business relationships are problematic,” said Dr. Lisa DeAngelis, who has stepped into Dr. Baselga’s former position at Memorial Sloan Kettering on an acting basis. “But I’m telling you, as someone who works with patients, and I’ve worked with patients throughout my entire career here, that working with industry has helped me save lives.”
The Times and ProPublica asked to speak to Dr. Tabar and Dr. Brown about the critical remarks they made about the hospital’s direction at the Oct. 1 meeting. Mike Morey, managing director of the communications firm engaged by the hospital, arranged for them to speak to reporters on the phone while he listened. The doctors said they were not specifically referring to Memorial Sloan Kettering during the meeting that was recorded by one of those in attendance, but to broader changes in the medical world.
Defining an institution’s role
Founded in 1884 as the New York Cancer Hospital, Memorial Sloan Kettering was the first hospital in the country devoted exclusively to treating cancer. Its benefactors have included some of the wealthiest families in America, from the Astors and Rockefellers in its early years to the Kochs today.
It now operates more than 120 research laboratories, employs more than 1,000 doctors, admits some 23,500 patients a year, operates one of the world’s largest clinical trial programs and had revenues of nearly $4.5 billion in 2017. It recently completed a $3.5 billion fund-raising drive and its charity ball remains a fixture on New York’s social calendar.
As a leading force in cancer research, the hospital has long grappled with striking a balance in its collaborations with drug companies. While it did business with industry during the tenure of Dr. Varmus, a former director of the National Institutes of Health, he and a top deputy, Dr. Robert E. Wittes, did not consult for companies, own their stock or serve on their boards, according to several people who worked for Dr. Varmus while he was at the hospital from 2000 to 2010. Dr. Varmus and Dr. Wittes declined to comment.
But some on the hospital’s board wanted its chief executive to do more to encourage company-financed clinical trials and to bring discoveries to market. In an interview, John R. Gunn, the cancer center’s chief operating officer from 1987 to 2015, said board members felt gems of research were “lying fallow and nobody was kind of pushing it, to commercialize it.”