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USC Countersues UCSD as Fight Over Alzheimer’s Study Intensifies

Xconomy San Diego — 

[Updated 8/3/15 1:25 pm. See below.] The short path to a resolution in the dispute between UC San Diego and the University of Southern California over a nationwide Alzheimer’s research program has taken a sharp detour into the thorny underbrush.

While both sides were awaiting a formal court order granting UC San Diego’s request for a preliminary injunction in the case, USC filed a countersuit late Friday against UC San Diego (posted at the bottom of this story). A USC spokesman said the private university in Los Angeles also plans to appeal aspects of the still-pending preliminary injunction.

[Updated 8/3/15 1:25 pm here and below.] Today, UC San Diego issued a lengthy response to USC’s countersuit that begins: “The University of Southern California’s cross-complaint is fundamentally dishonest. It is a collection of misstatements and outright falsehoods designed to distract from a singular truth: While he was on the faculty at UC San Diego, Dr. Paul Aisen, aided and abetted by his future employer USC, illegally seized control of data and computer systems that belong to UC San Diego as the administrator of the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study (ADCS).

“On July 24, Superior Court Judge Judith Hayes agreed, ordering Aisen, USC and co-defendants to safely restore UC San Diego’s rightful property.”

As an “early read” on the merits of a case, a preliminary injunction can often lead to settlement talks. But USC’s countersuit reveals deeper antagonisms between the two Southern California universities, and appears to make it unlikely that either side will come away unscathed.

Among other things, USC alleges that the University of California, San Diego, demanded that scientist Paul Aisen sign a loyalty oath as he discussed his interest in moving to USC, along with the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study (ADCS).

UC San Diego hired Aisen in 2007 to administer the program, which coordinates Alzheimer’s research throughout the U.S. and Canada. UC San Diego founded the study in 1991 as a kind of joint venture with the National Institute on Aging, with funding provided by federal research grants, the pharmaceutical industry, and private foundations.

Paul Aisen

Paul Aisen

Aisen resigned from UC San Diego on June 21 to join USC, which also named Aisen as founding director of its new San Diego-based Alzheimer’s Therapeutic Research Institute. Aisen views the ADCS as his, not UC San Diego’s, and wanted to bring the program, which gets about $100 million a year in funding and oversees studies involving thousands of patients at over 70 research sites, to USC.

USC’s countersuit alleges that UC San Diego tried to intimidate researchers on Aisen’s team to keep them from leaving for USC, and defamed Aisen by informing pharmaceutical companies sponsoring clinical trials that Aisen had committed crimes and that UC San Diego intended to “have him arrested, put in jail, and his medical license suspended.”

In its statement today, UC San Diego says its legal filings show through evidence and Aisen’s own testimony that Aisen’s conduct squarely violated section 502 of the California Penal Code, which makes it a crime “to take, copy and use computer data and systems without permission of the rightful owner.”

USC alleges that UC San Diego academic leaders, including David Brenner, Dean of the UCSD Medical School, also have interfered with Aisen’s efforts to move four of six major Alzheimer’s studies to USC. In the case of the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative, led by Michael Weiner of UC San Francisco, USC alleges that Brenner and UCSF leadership used their influence to pressure Weiner to rescind his decision to award the neuroimaging initiative to USC.

In today’s statement, UC San Diego said the subcontract for the study came up for renewal and UC San Diego acted to renew it—and neither Aisen nor USC were a party in the contract, “so how can there be interference? Conversely, UC San Diego has every right to seek renewal of its own existing subcontract.”

USC also alleges in its countersuit that Aisen realized soon after joining UC San Diego that the university was unwilling and unable to provide the infrastructure and support “needed to grow the ADCS for the new grants and studies he was developing.”

UC San Diego filed its lawsuit on July 2, alleging that USC and Aisen conspired to “misappropriate” the nationwide Alzheimer’s study by moving the work to USC.

USC argues that the ADCS national steering committee supported Aisen’s move to USC. But UC San Diego maintains that funding for Alzheimer’s research and clinical trials is provided to UC San Diego—not an individual—and the university is contractually obligated to maintain its control of the program, computer systems, and research data that has been collected over the past 24 years.

In its filings, UC San Diego argues that Aisen owed the university “a duty of loyalty” as long as he was an employee, and that actions he took to transfer control over the ADCS computer system to USC were inimical to UC San Diego’s interests. In its response today, UC San Diego says, “The so-called loyalty ‘oath’ was, in reality, a commitment to re-affirm what he had already agreed to as a condition of his employment, i.e., that he would not act against the university’s interest.”

It’s also worth noting that in a declaration included as part of USC’s filings, Aisen says the ADCS program “tripled in size in terms of funding” under his direction at UC San Diego.

As part of its suit, UC San Diego asked San Diego Superior Court Judge Judith Hayes to issue a temporary restraining order against USC, Aisen, and other defendants “to refrain from making any changes or alterations to ADCS data” that might interfere with restoring the custody and control of the Alzheimer’s data to UC San Diego. The request also asked the court to restore rightful custody and control of the Alzheimer’s data to UC San Diego.

At the end of a July 24 hearing, the judge granted UC San Diego’s request for a preliminary injunction to restore control of the Alzheimer’s program and data to UC San Diego, saying she would issue a formal order in a few days. The judge said she also would name a special master and consultant to ensure that the ADCS computer system and data are protected until the litigation is resolved.

USC Countersuit vs. UC San Diego