Deeper Issues Underlie UC San Diego Lawsuit Over Raid by USC

Xconomy San Diego — 

[Updated 7/6/15 11:14 am with statements from UCSD and USC below.] A lawsuit that UC San Diego filed last week against the University of Southern California and a prominent Alzheimer’s disease researcher may have ramifications for a concerted effort to create a major new hub for life sciences innovation in Los Angeles.

The lawsuit (posted at bottom), filed through the University of California Regents just before the long holiday weekend, alleges that USC and neuroscientist Paul Aisen conspired to “misappropriate” a nationwide Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study by moving the work to USC. Aisen had been overseeing the study at UC San Diego since 2007.

USC’s Keck School of Medicine announced on June 25 that Aisen was joining the faculty as founding director of the new San Diego-based Alzheimer’s Therapeutic Research Institute “to accelerate the development of effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease.” To recruit the scientist, the lawsuit contends that USC’s offer included a $500,000 annual salary guaranteed through 2020.

UC San Diego expected to retain the Alzheimer’s study, and immediately named two UCSD physician-scientists, William Mobley and Michael Rafii, to step in for Aisen as interim co-directors. The study began in 1991 as a cooperative agreement between the National Institute on Aging (NIA) and UC San Diego. The NIA renewed its funding for the study in 2013 through a five-year grant of up to $55 million, and UC San Diego says additional funding from private sources have raised the total value of the contract to $100 million.

But since Aisen resigned, UC San Diego has been unable to access data for the Alzheimer’s project, according to a copy of the lawsuit obtained over the weekend by Xconomy. The San Diego Union-Tribune, first reported on the litigation Friday.

According to the lawsuit, UC San Diego alleges that Aisen and at least eight colleagues who are joining him participated in a civil conspiracy with USC, interfered with UC San Diego’s control of the Alzheimer’s contract, breached their duty of loyalty, and committed computer crimes.

[Updated 7/6/15 11:14 am.] In a statement this morning, UC San Diego says, “This attempt to move a long-established research program without authorization to a private institution goes against the fundamental mission of the University of California—to provide excellence in teaching, research and public service.

“These acts, among others, are egregious breaches of academic, medical and legal standards of conduct, and are against the best interests of the University, our employees and our partners.”

Aisen could not be reached for comment. But USC countered with a statement released by a spokeswoman for Keck Medicine of USC: “Researchers move between institutions regularly. USC has been building its neuroscience research programs for several years, and is excited to welcome  Paul Aisen, who has been a national leader in Alzheimer’s disease research for over 20 years. Aisen and his collaborators have designed and led many large clinical trials, and their group’s knowledge and expertise, combined with USC’s existing strengths in medical neuroscience, promise to accelerate discoveries and treatments for neurological diseases that affect millions around the world.

“We are surprised and disappointed that the University of California, San Diego, elected to sue its departing faculty member and his team, as well as USC, rather than manage this transition collaboratively, as is the well-accepted custom and practice in academia.”

However the case is resolved, the legal hostilities are just the latest episode in a bigger and much more ambitious drama that has been playing out in recent years.

USC campus and downtown Los Angeles (credit USC)

USC campus and downtown Los Angeles (credit USC)

As a major biomedical research university, USC has been a key driver—if not the key driver—in a broad effort to make the Los Angeles region into a major bioscience industry hub. To realize this vision, a master plan prepared last year for Los Angeles County officials said the regional bioscience industry must overcome some key weaknesses—including an inability to effectively recruit senior-level talent. As the plan recommends, “The industry must engage the universities, and vice versa, in order to promote successful talent pipelines and an understanding of the opportunities in the region.”

Amid a fund-raising campaign that already has raised $4 billion of a planned $6 billion, USC has taken the recommendation to heart—recruiting prominent biomedical scientists from Caltech, UC San Francisco, Harvard, and other renowned centers of life sciences R&D. USC’s recruiting efforts have been particularly successful in San Diego, where its list of elite recruits includes chemist Valery Fokin, structural biologist Ray Stevens (a San Diego Xconomist), and molecular biologist Peter Kuhn (an Xconomist at large), who all came from The Scripps Research Institute, and biologist Steven Kay, who went from UC San Diego to become dean of the new USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

In a much-publicized misfire, USC also attempted last year to join forces with The Scripps Research Institution through a partnership or wholesale acquisition—reportedly offering to pay the bioscience research center $15 million a year for 40 years. The proposal triggered a revolt among Scripps’ scientists, who stridently criticized the idea as a takeover by USC.

USC’s proposed deal also represented a huge threat to UC San Diego, which has been able to burnish its national reputation for excellence in biomedical research at least in part by arranging joint faculty appointments for elite scientists at Scripps and other nearby biomedical institutes.

Against this background of repeated faculty raids, one question underlying UC San Diego’s lawsuit is whether it represents only a warning shot across USC’s bow—or the opening salvo in a bigger battle against USC and others driving the campaign to build a major biohub in Los Angeles.

Asked for his thoughts on the situation, Biocom CEO Joe Panetta responded at length, writing in an e-mail: “We at Biocom have for many years projected the concept of a Southern California life science cluster. We believe in collaboration and the strength of a convergent, geographically connected life science community that covers all of So Cal and includes LA, Orange County, Riverside County, Imperial County, and San Diego, just as there is a recognized BayArea life science community that similarly reaches from Berkley to the lower East Bay, and also spans across the Bay from San Francisco to Palo Alto…

“We have no position on the USC/UCSD legal situation but I will say that we believe that USC can gain a lot by working with San Diego more in the future, as can UCLA and CalTech… We’d love to see representation by other LA academic institutions. It would be productive for all of the life science community in So Cal to collaborate together and to compete as one on a global level rather than to compete with each other regionally.”

Greg McKee, CEO of Connect, the San Diego nonprofit industry group supporting technology innovation and entrepreneurship, referred to the tussle between UC San Diego and USC as “an interesting dynamic.”

“I think what we’ve got to do is focus on building our own ecosystem,” McKee said over the weekend. “I realize that other places are going to do that too, but obviously we don’t want that to happen at the expense of San Diego.”

UCSD vs. USC, Paul Aisen, et al.