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An Inside Job: How The American Journal of Bioethics Was Destroyed

For nearly three months, the editor-in-chief of a major bioethics journal worked for a company apparently engaged in activities that were clearly unethical and possibly illegal.  From at least December 15, 2011 to February 10, 2012, Glenn McGee served as Editor-in-Chief of The American Journal of Bioethics while also working as a senior executive at Celltex Therapeutics.  According to Nature, Celltex arranges costly, unapproved stem cell procedures for patients with multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and other serious illnesses.  On February 9, after being criticized for editing AJOB while employed at Celltex, McGee announced that he would “retire” from AJOB March 1, 2012.  One day later, members of AJOB’s Editorial Board were informed of McGee’s resignation.  Board members were also told that McGee’s replacements were Summer Johnson McGee, his wife, and David Magnus.  Over the past month, David Magnus and Summer Johnson McGee have responded to criticism of AJOB with denials and face-saving strategies that fail to address fundamental questions about the relationship of both Glenn McGee and AJOB to Celltex.

David Magnus claims that Glenn McGee left AJOB to work for “a stem cell company.”  This benign description of Celltex fails to acknowledge that Celltex sells clinically unproven, non-FDA approved adult stem cells to vulnerable patients.  Evidence has been available for months on a blog entitled Debbie’s Journey, where Debbie Bertrand provides a detailed account of the stem cell infusions she received from Celltex.  Included on her blog is a photo of a Celltex RNL Bio dinner engagement at which Ms. Bertrand presented a patient’s perspective on receiving stem cells for multiple sclerosis.  According to the program, Glenn McGee provided both the greeting and closing remarks at this event.  He therefore would have had an opportunity to hear Debbie Bertrand describe her experience as one of Celltex’s patients.  Ms. Bertrand reportedly paid Celltex $30,000 for stem cell processing, banking, and the infusions she received.

Ms. Bertrand is not alone.  Dr. Jamshid Lotfi (the physician who administered stem cells to Ms. Bertrand) told Nature that he had provided stem cells processed by Celltex to over twenty patients with multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.  Celltex reportedly pays Lotfi $500 every time he administers stem cells.  Although there is no way to know whether the FDA will investigate Celltex or what the outcome of such an investigation might be, it is worth mentioning that other individuals involved in arranging, selling, and administering non-FDA approved stem cells have been charged and arrested.

Perhaps the strangest aspect of McGee’s involvement with Celltex is his expertise in “ethical issues in tissue and gene banks, and ethical issues in stem cell research.”  According to his biography on bioethics.net, McGee “pioneered Penn’s stem cell policy,” “co-authored the text that became bills or stem cell legislation in four states,” served as an FDA panel member, and delivered the “Tisherman Dean’s Lecture on Stem Cell Ethics at the University of Pittsburgh.” Yet at Celltex, he worked for a company that sold stem cell injections and infusions outside the framework of FDA regulations.  I do not think it an exaggeration to state that in accepting employment at Celltex, Glenn McGee betrayed his chosen field of bioethics, not to mention his colleagues and readers of AJOB.

What have we been told by AJOB so far?  According to David Magnus, McGee was “working to transition out of his role at AJOB as soon as he accepted his new position.”  Magnus claims that “this can be attested to by a number of leaders within the field of bioethics.”  Whatever some of McGee’s colleagues might say about his “transition” efforts, the reality is that Glenn McGee worked at Celltex and served as Editor-in-Chief of AJOB until he was publicly criticized for this egregious conflict-of-interest.  When caught, his LinkedIn account, Google+ account, and the Editor’s page on bioethics.net were all scrubbed of information revealing the conflict of interest and Celltex issued a press release that attempted to backdate his resignation from AJOB to November 2011.

The journal’s “solution” to the conflict of interest was to hire McGee’s wife, Summer Johnson McGee, as the next Co-Editor-in-Chief of AJOB.  Magnus assumes full responsibility for this decision, and claims to be shocked at assertions that the appointment of Glenn McGee’s wife is perceived as a form of nepotism.  Both Magnus and Summer Johnson McGee herself have said that criticisms of her appointment constitute sexism.

I see three reasons why Summer Johnson McGee should not have been selected as Glenn McGee’s replacement.  First, the journal could have conducted an actual search and used fair and transparent decision-making to select the best candidate.  When the spouse of the previous editor is appointed without a search, without considering other possible candidates, and without using criteria that are known to other parties with an interest in the outcome of the decision, there are credible grounds to worry that someone is being hired due to “connections” and family ties rather than on the basis of their professional accomplishments.

Second, an appointment to the Editor-in-Chief position of an academic journal should be connected to a scholar’s publication record, prior editing experience, and other relevant accomplishments.  Summer Johnson McGee would have been a stronger candidate if many of her publications were not two-page editorials published in AJOB during her husband’s tenure as Editor-in-Chief. Of course, what I think about Summer Johnson McGee’s publication record is not important.  What is significant is that David Magnus simply insisted that she serve as Co-Editor with him, and apparently no one else was in a position to propose that other candidates deserved consideration.

Third, Summer Johnson McGee is married to a man who at the time of her appointment was the bioethicist for a company profiting from the sale of clinically unproven, non-FDA-approved stem cells to vulnerable patients.  This relationship does not make her a bad person or someone who deserves to be censured by her colleagues, but it does mean that she is the last person who should have been selected as his replacement.  Being married to a bioethicist employed by a company profiting from selling clinically unproven stem cells to vulnerable patients with chronic illnesses is not a conflict-of-interest to be managed through recusal, policies, and committees.  It is a moral and legal disaster scene.  Editors of The American Journal of Bioethics should be nowhere in the vicinity of such activity.

While David Magnus claims full responsibility for this decision, members of the Editorial Board have now had a month to respond to this choice.  With only two individuals known to have resigned from AJOB’s Editorial Board, it appears that other board members have no objection to the way the editors are handling the situation.  The last four months reveal that AJOB suffers from a fundamental failure of governance and responsible leadership.  Members of AJOB’s editorial staff and Editorial Board could have insisted that McGee resign from his position as Editor-in-Chief before he accepted the position at Celltex.  When McGee resigned after being caught in a conflict-of-interest they could have fully disentangled the journal from Celltex and Glenn McGee by hiring someone other than his wife to co-edit the journal.  The journal could have been steered away from the rocks even after McGee began working for Celltex if board members had publicly disclosed that they were unaware of his move and would resign if McGee remained as editor.  Instead, just two board members left the board while the new editors attempt to maintain that the former editor simply “retired” in order to move to the private sector.

To date, AJOB’s announcements about “changes” at the journal have failed to address basic questions concerning why Glenn McGee remained as Editor-in-Chief while also working at a company engaged in clearly unethical activity, why we are all supposed to accept vague, dubious claims suggesting that this never really happened, and why Summer Johnson McGee was selected as the next Co-Editor-in-Chief of AJOB while her husband was employed at Celltex.  Even if members of AJOB’s Editorial Board circle the wagons now, the credibility of the journal has been destroyed.  The destruction of AJOB’s academic standing was completed when Glenn McGee went to work for a company profiting from sale of clinically unproven, non-FDA-approved stem cells to vulnerable, chronically ill patients, and his friends and colleagues failed to address the situation.  Instead, they chose to respond with bluster, denials, and face-saving accusations directed at anyone unwilling to remain silent and accept their conduct.

Leigh Turner

March 9, 2012

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