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In Spain, a High-Profile Spat Over Drug Development Funds

Spain's top cancer scientist is fighting with the government over a plan to use private funding to develop drugs against lung cancer—and both parties have chosen the media as their battleground.

The spat, which pits Mariano Barbacid, director of the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO) in Madrid, against the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation, has made headlines for days and could soon become the topic of hearings in the lower house of the Spanish Parliament.

The disagreement became public on 3 May, when CNIO issued a press release announcing that Barbacid and his Experimental Oncology Group had discovered that knocking out a cell signaling protein called c-RAF kinase blocks the development of a certain type of lung cancer in mice without causing apparent toxicity. The research was published online in Cancer Cell on 21 April.

The next step for CNIO, which has been running a drug-discovery program since 2005, would be to look for c-RAF kinase inhibitors as potential cancer drugs. But “our plans ... were thwarted when the Ministry of Science and Innovation ... decided first not to provide additional public funds, and later ... to block [CNIO from receiving] 10 million euro per year for five years from private investors,” the CNIO press release said.

At the heart of the battle is whether it's legal for a public foundation like CNIO to set up a type of partnership known as an economic interest grouping (EIG). About a year ago, Barbacid proposed creating an EIG with two commercial funders (whose names he declines to reveal) to CNIO's board of trustees, which is chaired by Secretary of State for Research Felipe Pétriz. Barbacid tells ScienceInsider that he has “two reports from very prestigious lawyers saying this could be done. If not, I wouldn’t have gone for it.”

The day after CNIO's press release, the science ministry shot back with a statement that called the proposal for private funding “illegal.” Spain's state office for legal assistance has concluded that Spanish law doesn’t allow a public foundation to “participate in this type of associations because they imply that the foundation be personally responsible for possible debts, and thus the foundation’s patrimony would be put at risk,” the statement says. The Sustainable Economy Act, which was passed in March and which Barbacid says overrules the prohibition, does not make it legal for foundations to set up EIGs, a ministry spokesperson told ScienceInsider.

Adding insult to injury, the ministry said that Barbacid's statements on the research has raised false expectations. The ministry “rejects that promising findings in basic research or preliminary results in animal models be conveyed to society as if they already were the prelude to the development of valid drugs.” The government said that Barbacid's comments “were sufficiently serious to be examined" by CNIO's board of trustees.

Barbacid says the ministry’s legal position and its response to his statements are “an abuse of power and a totalitarian attitude on the part of [Spanish science and innovation] Minister [Cristina] Garmendia.” Garmendia has "personal reasons" to oppose the commercial partnership, he alleges. "I could not explain [to] you why.”

A twist to the debate is the fact that Barbacid is on his way out as director. He announced in September 2009 that he wanted to step down soon—about a decade after a previous government brought him home from the United States to create CNIO—so he could concentrate on his research and family. A ministry spokesperson says an international search has resulted in four candidates to replace him. The candidates will be presented to CNIO's board next Monday. Barbacid says he will not fight to stay on as director but says he worries about the future of the experimental therapeutics program and its 50 staffers.

“Most of the scientific community in Spain is looking with sadness to the current events,” Manel Esteller, director of the Cancer Epigenetics and Biology Program at the Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute in Barcelona, writes in an e-mail to ScienceInsider. “Both parties should put aside personal differences to find common ground ... for the benefit of patients,” says Esteller, who worked at CNIO between 2001 and 2008.

The battle, which has become major news in national newspapers such as El Mundo and El País, is likely to continue. Yesterday, the conservative opposition in the lower house of the Spanish Parliament asked for both Barbacid and Garmendia to appear at hearings to discuss the situation.