Southern California schools clash in court over Alzheimer’s grant

Updated: Southern California schools in legal clash over Alzheimer’s grant

In an unusual dispute, the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), is suing a former faculty member and rival school, the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, for allegedly conspiring to take over a federally funded Alzheimer’s disease study.

According to The San Diego Union-Tribune, which broke the story on 2 July, the suit filed last week by the UC regents in San Diego Superior Court alleges that USC acted improperly when it began wooing Alzheimer’s expert Paul Aisen around April with the promise of a $500,000 annual salary to be supported by extramural research funding. Aisen was then director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study (ADCS), which has a $55 million, 5-year cooperative agreement from the National Institute on Aging (NIA) as well as other private and public grants. Aisen told his staff he would likely bring the grants with him to USC, according to the suit. The multi-institution project testing Alzheimer’s drugs in clinical trials has been based at UCSD since it began in 1991; Aisen had directed it since 2007.

Aisen stepped down from UCSD on 21 June to head a new Alzheimer’s center at USC in San Diego—without bringing the grants. The suit alleges that Aisen and his co-workers have declined to share passwords needed to access data from the ADCS that is stored on computer servers owned by Amazon.

The defendants in the suit include USC, Aisen, and eight researchers who moved with him. The alleged wrongdoing includes breach of fiduciary duty, interference with contractual relations, breach of duty of loyalty, and commission of computer crimes and civil conspiracy, according to the suit. It asks for a jury trial and an unspecified amount of compensation.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) awards grants to institutions, not individual researchers, and when a principal investigator moves he or she must negotiate with the original institution to transfer any NIH grants. NIA told the Union-Tribune that the grant remains with UCSD; the university has appointed temporary directors to lead the ADCS.

USC told the paper that its efforts to recruit Aisen are routine in academia and that the university is "surprised and disappointed that” UCSD opted to file the lawsuit “rather than manage this transition collaboratively.” Aisen reportedly is not commenting.

According to Xconomy, USC’s recruitment of Aisen is part of an aggressive fundraising campaign to build a biotech hub by recruiting prominent scientists. One related effort failed: The university’s attempt last year to form a merger with the cash-strapped Scripps Research Institute in San Diego fell apart after Scripps faculty objected

In a statement released by USC yesterday, Aisen noted that he has spent the past 20 years of his career with the ADCS and that he believes “that USC offers the best environment for this research program to prosper and grow.” He said that both UCSD and USC have access to all of the study’s data. He remains a principal investigator or co-director of several ADSC components. His full statement is below. 

6 July 2015 statement from Paul Aisen:

I have devoted the last 20 years of my career to the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study, which in essence operates independently of the University of California, San Diego. I strongly believe that USC offers the best environment for this research program to prosper and grow, regardless of what it may be called in the end. This lawsuit is more about affiliation with an institution than about the protection and support of Alzheimer’s research.

Regarding data, ADCS has been migrating to the cloud for several years as a matter of convenience and data protection. Both UCSD and USC have access to all of the data. UCSD has always had access to the cloud data as well as a mirror database on its own supercomputer. As the ongoing principal investigator on several clinical studies, I continue to have access to clinical data from those studies.

I remain PI of the A4 study (with co-lead Reisa Sperling), the FYN Inhibition Study (with Stritmatter and van Dyck at Yale), and the Intra-nasal Insulin study (with Suzanne Craft at Wake Forest). I am also co-Director of the Clinical Core of the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Study along with related projects.

Updated, 7 July, 5:12 p.m.: This story has been updated with a statement from Paul Aisen.