M.D. Anderson president extols his company on TV
During the last couple of weeks Todd Ackerman and I have been reporting on a controversial $20 million grant received by the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and Rice University.
The story broke on May 11 when Nobel laureate Al Gilman resigned as chief scientific officer of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute, which has 10 years to appropriate $3 billion in taxpayer funds on cancer research.
Gilman’s primary concern is that M.D. Anderson’s part of the proposal, which was to be funded up to $18 million, was approved by CPRIT “without scientific review, without a score, and in record time.” In other words, the grant review process was done outside his purview and, in his view, a questionable manner.
M.D. Anderson’s part of the grant has Dr. Lynda Chin as its principal
Path: investigator. Chin, a well-regarded scientist, is also the wife of Dr. Ronald DePinho, who M.D. Anderson hired last year to be its new president. Chin and DePinho are also co-founders of a modestly successful biotech company, AVEO Oncology.
The grant has proven problematic. M.D. Anderson has offered to resubmit it to CPRIT after questions were raised about it and the approval process, and CPRIT has agreed to re-review it. The UT System is also now probing the process. Chin’s involvement in the grant has heightened concerns among some M.D. Anderson faculty about how DePinho and Chin handle conflicts of interest. Many have contacted Todd and myself to express such concerns.
Ok, so that’s a long way of saying there is, at a minimum, a perception among some faculty at M.D. Anderson that DePinho has conflicts of interest.
It’s a video — shot on May 18, after the CPRIT story had broken — of DePinho appearing on CNBC with Maria Bartiromo in advance of the biggest cancer meeting of the year, the ASCO Annual Meeting, which begins today. He does so as a cancer expert, and is clearly identified as the president of M.D. Anderson.
The interview starts off with DePinho explaining why he believes recent developments, including genomics, nanotechnology, gene manipulation and other research trends, are bringing cancer cures close to the clinic. It’s a historic moment, he says.
The interesting part comes in the middle. Here’s a transcript of three questions (Bartiromo is in bold):
Are there companies out there that you think are most promising?
In the biotech sector you have to be really careful because you have to understand which companies are driven by good management and driven by the kinds of scientific advancement that I’ve mentioned, and there are a few of them out there. Historically of course Genentech was one of the prime examples of this. More recently …
They were the first one to come out with a targeted treatment.
Right so you can think about Herceptin and so on, those are very important advances, and in fact some of the most effective drugs have come out of the idea of using science to shepherd cancer drug development. A company that I was involved in founding, Aveo Pharmaceuticals, one of the more successful biotechs…
That’s AVEO as a symbol?
That’s correct, has exploited science driven drug discovery and it’s about to announce, or has announced already publicly, and it will present in detail at ASCO, a very effective drug that has a superior safety profile for renal cell cancer, a major unmet need. So these are massive advances in our ability to do something about a disease that has long been very refractory.
Why is this significant? Because Bartiromo asks DePinho what companies, from a stockholder perspective, are most promising. He begins with some history and then proceeds to trumpet his company, and his company alone. And not modestly. Additionally, as part of the entire interview, he never really trumpets his own institution which is helping to lead the way in the “massive advances” he describes.
As president of M.D. Anderson DePinho is paid a base salary of $1.4 million a year. I’m not certain that his duties as a representative of the esteemed cancer center, on national television, include promoting his own company.
UPDATE: Responding to questions about this interview from The Cancer Letter, DePinho apologized for the appearance:
“I am a public official in a position of trust, and I should never comment on any of my personal holdings or give investment advice,” he said to The Cancer Letter. “It was a mistake for me to do so on the CNBC interview.”
DePinho blamed the medium. “It was live TV,” he said. “It was a very fast-moving interview, which in the context of what Maria and I were talking beforehand, versus what we were talking on air, etc. It unfolded the way it did. And it will not happen again.”
Apologies notwithstanding, the episode illustrates failure on the part of the University of Texas System to manage DePinho’s conflicts. Analysis of this new cluster of conflicts has to start with AVEO.
It’s good that he acknowledges making a mistake.