Penn Institute Sues Prominent Researcher Over Discoveries, Seeking $1 Billion

The president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City—Craig Thompson—has received an unpleasant holiday package: A $1 billion lawsuit filed by the cancer center he used to head. The Leonard and Madlyn Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute, part of the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania, is alleging that Thompson, a prominent researcher who worked at the institute for 12 years, concealed his involvement with a biotechnology company. The suit claims that when confronted, Thompson led the institute to believe that it had no intellectual property rights to discoveries now in dispute, rights which it says it does have. Co-defendants in the suit are a company Thompson helped form, Agios Pharmaceuticals of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Celgene Corporation of Summit, New Jersey. Celgene recently boosted its investment in Agios to $150 million.

Lawyers for both sides have been tight-lipped. Through his attorney, Thompson declined to comment beyond releasing the following statement: "The allegations in this lawsuit are unfounded and without merit. It is unfortunate that the Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute has chosen to go down this path."

David Clifford Burger, an attorney with Robinson Brog Leinwand Greene Genovese & Gluck representing the Abramson institute, said that "I can't in a telephone conversation expand on the factual allegations in the complaint." The document, he believes, "tells the story."

In a 13-page complaint filed on 13 December with the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, the institute describes Thompson as "an unscrupulous doctor" who "chose to abscond with the fruits of the Abramson largess." The Abramson Cancer Center was renamed in 2002 after the Abramson family donated more than $100 million, stipulating that the money be used for cancer research and treatment and that the institute own all or part of the discoveries made there. Thompson became the founding scientific director of the Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute in 1999 and in 2006 took the helm of the Abramson Cancer Center.

The complaint says that Thompson was at first forthcoming about the possibility that he would form a company based on his work in cancer cell metabolism. Among other things, in 2007 he reported that his work suggested that the diabetes drug metformin might reduce the risk of cancer. But, the complaint continues, he did not alert the institute when he helped launch a company in August of 2007, which was later renamed Agios Pharmaceuticals.

Still, the lawsuit doesn't state that Agios was willfully hiding the fact that Thompson was a co-founder. In 2009, the complaint notes, the company stated publicly that Thompson was one of three founders. A search of Agios's press releases also found that the first put out by the company in 2008 list Thompson as a co-founder.

But the complaint alleges that Abramson didn't know this at the time. In October 2011, it was publicly reported that Celgene was investing another $20 million in Agios on top of $130 million invested in April 2010. The April 2010 Agios press release announcing the deal did not name Thompson as a co-founder, the suit says.

"As a result of Dr. Thompson's concealment, the Institute did not learn of Dr. Thompson's involvement in Agios until late 2011," the complaint reads. The university asked Thompson "whether his association with Agios was a matter that came within the purview of the University's Center for Technology Transfer." Thompson said no, according to the complaint.

The Abramson cancer institute argues that Thompson "knowingly misrepresented to Agios and Celgene that he had sole ownership of all work funded in part or in whole by the Institute related to the cancer metabolism research platform." While damages are difficult to calculate, the institute says they are "estimated to ultimately exceed $1 billion."

Thompson took a leave of absence from Abramson about a year ago to begin his post as president and chief executive officer at Sloan-Kettering and formally left Abramson at the end of October this year. He remains chair of Agios's scientific advisory board, according to the company's Web site.

Thompson, the companies, and their attorneys have until early February to file a response with the court.