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As Feud Rages, UCSD Names New Director to Lead Alzheimer’s Study

Xconomy San Diego — 

UC San Diego today named Howard Feldman, a Canadian neurologist who specializes in dementia, as director of a nationwide Alzheimer’s disease research program riven in a bitter feud between two of the biggest academic powers in California.

Feldman, known for his expertise in large-scale clinical trials, steps into a breach that was created when his predecessor, Paul Aisen, abruptly resigned from UC San Diego last June as director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study (ADCS).

Aisen, who had been overseeing the study for UC San Diego since 2007, was recruited by the University of Southern California to serve as founding director of USC’s new San Diego-based Alzheimer’s Therapeutic Research Institute. Aisen also sought to take much of the nationwide ADCS program with him, triggering a tug of war between the two research universities.

Feldman’s appointment, contingent on approval from the Bethesda, MD-based National Institute on Aging, coincides with the launch of a $4 million initiative by the 10-campus University of California to move the most-promising findings in Alzheimer’s research from UC labs into early proof-of-concept clinical trials. The new effort was dubbed the UC Cures for Alzheimer’s initiative, and clinical trials will be coordinated by the ADCS under Feldman.

In a statement today, UC president Janet Napolitano said, “This initiative and the important work done—and still-to-be-done—at ADCS under the leadership of Dr. Feldman is intended to more speedily translate some of their best ideas into new treatments and, hopefully, an eventual cure.”

UC San Diego and the National Institute on Aging jointly founded the ADCS in 1991 to facilitate the discovery, development, and testing of new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease. The program coordinates Alzheimer’s research involving thousands of patients at 35 primary and 50 affiliated clinical research centers throughout the United States and Canada. Total funding for research grants awarded by both federal and private sources amounts to roughly $100 million.

In July, the University of California system sued USC, alleging that Aisen had conspired to “misappropriate” the ADCS by moving the program to USC. UC said Aisen had taken steps to retain his oversight over a number of key ADCS research programs, and still maintained root control over computer systems used to manage Alzheimer’s research and data collected over the past 25 years.

As a defiant Aisen put it in a statement at the time, “I left UCSD, not the ADCS.”

USC countersued in August, alleging that UC San Diego had tried to intimidate researchers on Aisen’s team to keep them from leaving for USC and had defamed Aisen.

After a San Diego Superior Court Judge issued a preliminary injunction that required Aisen and USC to return control of all ADCS systems and data, USC removed the litigation to federal court, where it is still pending.

As the rhetoric intensified, Aisen and USC officials have argued that scientists frequently jump from one research university to another, and they typically bring their research grants as part of the move.

But UC San Diego officials contend that the ADCS program is not comparable to the type of research grants a scientist might carry from one university to another. The program represents a broader and more collaborative effort, and— according to David Brenner, vice chancellor of UC San Diego Health Sciences—Aisen and USC have committed serious ethical and legal breaches in their efforts to shift ADCS research to USC.

If the fate of thousands of Alzheimers patients didn’t hang in the balance, the recriminations between UCSD and USC might invite some observers to invoke the centuries-old saying, “The reason academic politics are so vicious is because the stakes are so small.”

But the stakes are not so small. The dispute has drawn widespread attention, largely because of the implications it poses for academic institutions competing to win both elite scientists and federal research funding. For major research universities, locked in what has become a global contest for breakthrough innovation, the outcome could represent hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in licensing revenue.

Meanwhile, turmoil over the management of ADCS clinical trials has continued.

Michael Rafii, who was the medical director overseeing patient safety in at least five ADCS studies, started working last month at USC’s Alzheimer’s research institute under a joint appointment with UC San Diego “to provide continuity of medical oversight,” according to a statement from UC San Diego. UCSD named Rafii and another physician-scientist, William Mobley, as interim co-directors of the ADCS program following Aisen’s departure last summer.

While UC San Diego officials maintain that Rafii continues to serve as a principal investigator at UCSD, Raffi now spends about 80 percent of his time at USC’s research institute, according to an ADCS co-worker who would only speak anonymously.

Feldman is currently a professor of neurology and executive associate dean of research at the University of British Columbia Faculty of Medicine in Vancouver. In its statement today, UC San Diego described him as “a prolific physician-scientist credited with several key contributions in geriatric cognitive disorders, Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and other dementias including frontotemporal dementia,” with more than 150 published papers in epidemiology, genetics, biomarker development and experimental therapeutics.

Feldman has called for “outside the box thinking” in development of new drugs for treating dementia, and in a 2014 article published with several colleagues, he called for “a new research roadmap, one that pulls together government, regulators, industry, academia and the community in an unprecedented collaboration focusing on four key priorities: the fundamental mechanisms of disease; new translational research to speed basic research to clinical testing; innovative partnerships; and preventing AD.”

He is expected to take his new position at UC San Diego on April 1.