Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Clash over Alzheimer’s data intensifies

An already bitter legal dispute between the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and the University of Southern California (USC) over control of data from a large, federally funded Alzheimer’s study just got nastier.

Last month, UCSD sued USC and Alzheimer’s researcher Paul Aisen, director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study (ADCS), for allegedly conspiring to commandeer data from the large, federally funded study after USC lured Aisen, a $55 million federal grant, and many of his lab members away from UCSD in June. According to UCSD, Aisen “took unauthorized control of ADCS data” after leaving UCSD by moving it to an Amazon cloud account. On 24 July, a California superior court found in favor of UCSD, issuing a preliminary injunction to restore control of the study data to the school.

On 31 July, USC launched a blistering cross-complaint against UCSD, which claims that the university’s actions were unjustified, defamatory, and in violation of the California Constitution. Among UCSD’s alleged illegal “shenanigans”: cutting off Aisen’s email and other electronic communications while he was still at UCSD, “jeopardizing his ability to monitor clinical trials and protect patient safety and research integrity;” “pressuring Dr. Aisen to sign an unconstitutional “Oath of Loyalty”; and “defaming” him by stating to research sponsors that Aisen would be arrested and barred from practicing medicine. USC describes the USCD lawsuit as “aimed at stifling academic freedom and to intimidate [sic] researchers from leaving the UC System.”

The universities have markedly different accounts of events leading up to the current conflict. According to a statement released today by UCSD, USC’s cross-complaint is a “collection of distortions, misstatements and outright falsehoods.” It is, UCSD alleges, designed to distract from the fact that Aisen “illegally seized control of data and computer systems that belong to UC San Diego” while on UCSD faculty, “aided and abetted” by USC. The legal dispute “has never been about academic freedom,” UCSD adds.

In contrast, USC’s suit claims that UCSD’s restriction of Aisen’s electronic access in May was “so severe,” and so compromising to his patient relationships and safety, that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) intervened to restore it. “That is not true,” responds Jacqueline Carr, a UCSD spokeswoman. On 2 July, she says, NIH confirmed that UCSD is the legal custodian of the data, and Aisen’s email was shut down to prevent its theft. “Contrary to repeated claims by Dr. Aisen and USC, this action did not affect the integrity of the data nor did it put ADCS patients at risk,” UCSD writes.

USC also alleges that, after Aisen discussed his possible move to USC with his staff, UCSD Chair of the Department of Neurosciences William Mobley required Aisen to sign an “loyalty oath” pledging to hold the interests of UCSD above all others as a condition of access to the ADCS data. Aisen refused, and the suit argues that such oaths violate the First Amendment, according to a 1952 ruling by the California Supreme Court. After Aisen refused to sign the oath, USC alleges UCSD—and Mobley in particular—“set about to destroy” Aisen’s academic reputation.

Although USC “makes much” of the loyalty oath, UCSD claims it is a proforma document. And it claims Aisen broke state law by attempting to “take, copy and use computer data and systems without permission of the rightful owner.” Aisen and USC say that no data were ever moved, and the Amazon cloud account has existed since 2013 when it was created at the request of sponsors, in compliance with UCSD’s cloud computing policy. 

Both sides appear to be girding for what could be a lengthy court battle.

*Update, 4 August, 11:33 a.m.: This item has been updated to clarify the timeline of events and perspective on the creation of Aisen’s Amazon cloud account.