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Lavish Furnishings at MD Anderson Cancer Center Questioned

Corporate touch. Lynda Chin's office furnishings include a $7754 Florence Knoll settee.

Smart Furniture Inc./Knoll

The renovation of an office for Lynda Chin, the wife of the president of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Ronald DePinho, may have cost as much as $2 million, according to an analysis by a Washington, D.C., investigative newsletter. The allegations of lavish spending on Chin's office at MD Anderson add to the woes of the pair of cancer research leaders a year after Chin was awarded an $18 million grant from a state cancer research fund that did not undergo scientific review.

The office suite for Chin, who heads a new drug discovery institute at MD Anderson and chairs the center's Department of Genomic Medicine, was meant to have a "corporate" feel, according to 680 pages of documents obtained by The Cancer Letter. The do-over included designer furniture and required many exceptions from university building rules for features such as glass walls. The renovation was paid for by the center's capital accounts, which come from investment income, gifts, and patient revenue, MD Anderson officials told the newsletter.

MD Anderson disputed the newsletter's cost estimates and defended the spending. Although the overall project cost $1.5 million, officials said that this amount included the purchase of lab equipment. The tab for Chin's office renovations was $547,434, they said. They told The Cancer Letter that the project "transformed a traditional academic office suite to a work environment and meeting area for a science/business enterprise, a concept new not only to MD Anderson, but most of academic medicine." (The Cancer Letter estimated costs of up to $2 million based on invoices and other documents that did not mention lab equipment.)

Last week, DePinho announced that because of financial pressures, MD Anderson is freezing staff salaries and postponing some capital projects.

DePinho has drawn criticism for his ties to companies and for launching a "moon shot" program aimed at dramatically improving survival for several cancers within a decade. The controversy over MD Anderson's $18 million "incubator" grant from the $3 billion Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) spurred the resignations of CPRIT chief scientific officer and Nobel Prize-winner Alfred Gilman and many of the agency's scientific advisers. After questions about several grants triggered investigations, CPRIT briefly suspended its grantmaking. The Texas legislature has since drafted a bill to overhaul CPRIT's operations and is poised to approve $600 million in new funding .

*Update, 5:15 p.m., 24 May: The estimates of the costs of the office renovation have been clarified.