Allegations of data manipulation in Dana-Farber Cancer Institute's research has sparked intense scrutiny of a long-revered pillar in cancer treatment and put its once-sparkling reputation into question.
Cancer treatment is a big business. Retaining Dana-Farber's long-term standing and preserving its bottom line will depend on how fast the institute moves to control the fallout from a scandal that has made national headlines, marketing and risk management experts said.
The scandal comes at a critical time for Dana-Farber. Led by President and CEO Dr. Laurie Glimcher, it launched a fundraising campaign in 2021 with the goal of raising $2 billion—its largest goal ever—-by this year. It is also seeking regulatory approval for a partnership with Boston-based Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center to build a freestanding inpatient cancer hospital, effectively ending Dana-Farber's nearly 30-year relationship with Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
“This is not a good situation,” said Tim Calkins, associate chair of the marketing department and clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “It’s a particular challenge because Dana-Farber works on really important health issues, so it’s particularly bad when it appears that there were problems with a number of the papers that have been published.”
Trouble erupted in early January after British blogger Sholto David, a molecular biologist, accused Dana-Farber researchers of manipulating images to falsify data. The accusations reached all the way to the top of the organization. Some of the work in question was co-authored by Glimcher and Chief Operating Officer William Hahn, among other well-known researchers.
As of last week, the institute was in the process of retracting six papers and making corrections to 31 others. One paper with a reported error remains under examination, according to a hospital spokesperson.
Boston-based Dana-Farber did not answer questions about its review process and whether the accusations could spark larger operational changes. Multiple members of its board of trustees did not respond to requests for comment.
The ripple effects of a sullied reputation
Dana-Farber's reach is huge. The cancer hospital served more than 92,000 unique patients in the 12 months ended Sept. 30, 2022, according to the most recent data available. It reported more than 1,100 clinical trials with roughly 640 research fellows and 75 clinical fellows, and was the recipient of 140 National Institute of Health-sponsored research grants.
Dana-Farber raised nearly $400 million in philanthropic funds during that 12-month period.
Reputational damage could stunt cash flow and affect who wants to work with the institute, said Mark Williams, a finance lecturer at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business.
Erik Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management, agreed. “I would have people on the phone reaching out to key partners, donors, investors, anything like that, and sharing reassurances directly with people, apologizing for any negative attention they’re bringing to these other groups. ... You can tell people, ‘We can’t share details, but we’re doing something,'" he said.
Correcting the scientific record is not unusual among research institutions, Barrett Rollins, Dana-Farber’s chief integrity officer, said in a statement. He said Dana-Farber will continue to evaluate its research "with the rigor required."
Rollins said the institute had already taken action on a number of issues before the matters were cited in David's blog, and other steps were taken after the blog posting. Some of the issues mentioned in the blog were found to not be errors, he said.
The right steps for brand preservation
Experts say Dana-Farber must take a carefully measured approach in the coming weeks to preserve its reputation. The Dana-Farber name is among the nation's best cancer treatment providers and researchers, which include Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Mayo Clinic and MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Dana-Farber needs to be honest and direct in communicating what happened and how it is making changes once the investigation is complete, said Justine Griffin, principal at public affairs firm Rasky Partners.
Questions remain on whether executives will be forced to step down. Griffin said she thinks heads will "absolutely" roll because of the crisis, but it will depend on who bears the most fault, possibly those overseeing research review standards.
It’s been just five months since Stanford University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne resigned after a committee uncovered data manipulation in research papers to which he contributed. A special committee of Stanford's board found he did not have knowledge of any data manipulation.
At Harvard University, a Dana-Farber affiliate, former president Claudine Gay stepped down about a month ago following plagiarism accusations and controversial remarks at a congressional hearing on antisemitism.
Northwestern's Calkins said one big question in Dana-Farber's case is whether the date problems are isolated incidents or involve a broader systemic issue at play. The additional scrutiny on the institute's practices could uncover other problems in past research, he added.
Dana-Farber is not bringing in a third party to help with the inquiry, the hospital spokesperson said. Griffin said that decision could affect credibility of the investigation, especially given the high-profile names involved.
“You can’t do an internal investigation. No one can investigate the CEO who works for the CEO,” Griffin said. “[Dana-Farber] can get themselves out of it. It just has to be very transparent, done with a lot of integrity and no double standard.”