Paul Mischel (right) is one of six researchers suing the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research for tapering down its funding.

University of California, San Diego

Major cancer institute sued by its own researchers over ‘tapering’ funding

Alleging that a leading cancer funder is slashing their support in an “unethical and reckless” way, six prominent cancer researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), have filed a lawsuit to compel it to continue its current level of support. The suit, filed quietly in November 2019 and amended last week, contends that the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research (LICR) is gradually drawing down its funding for cancer prevention and treatment research to the six plaintiffs, in order to close its 29-year-old San Diego branch by 2023.

In a statement, LIRC confirmed it is winding down the San Diego branch—but stressed that, “[i]n implementing this decision, the Ludwig Institute is honoring its contractual obligations.” LICR also said it plans to respond to the lawsuit’s specific allegations “in due course.”

The six plaintiffs, Don Cleveland, Arshad Desai, Richard Kolodner, Paul Mischel, Karen Oegema, and Bing Ren, primarily study tumor biology and cancer genomics, though some work more broadly, including Cleveland, who is also known for research on Huntington disease. In addition to funding from LICR, they receive substantial support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the Breakthrough Prize, and other sources.

LICR, a nonprofit organization based in New York City and Zurich, now oversees nine research centers at universities and research hospitals around the world, including seven in the United States. According to figures from the institute, it has committed some $2.5 billion to cancer research since its founding in 1971. Scientists working at its research centers are co-employed as faculty members of LICR and their host institutions, with LICR partially funding the scientists’ work. In return, LICR earns revenue from patents and licensing agreements related to the scientists’ work. The San Diego branch is hosted by UCSD. According to figures cited in the lawsuit, between 2013 and 2018, LICR provided the university between $11.5 million and $13.2 million annually, including more than $3 million annually for research activities.

Jeremy Rich, a neuro-oncologist at the UCSD School of Medicine who has collaborated with LICR scientists, says the plaintiffs are the victims of a relationship between UCSD and LICR that has been in a “downward spiral” for years. The university, he says, doesn’t see LICR “as one of its own.” The deteriorating relationship has fomented doubt about where the scientists’ loyalties lie, he says. “Unfortunately for the investigators, they’re caught between two institutions,” he says. “It is a tragic thing for cancer research. Our enemies are not one another, but cancer.”

The lawsuit, filed by six of the seven principal investigators at the branch, says that the LICR board of directors told the plaintiffs in a May 2018 meeting that it planned to close the branch at the end of 2023, when the researchers’ contracts end. The complaint says LICR informed the researchers it would “impose a substantially reduced level of funding beginning in 2019” and provide a “tapering research budget” while the scientists transitioned their research programs elsewhere. Since 2016, LICR has closed branches in Brussels; Melbourne, Australia; São Paulo; Stockholm; and Uppsala, Sweden.

By tapering their funding, the plaintiffs argue, LICR is breaching its agreement to “provide future financial support for ‘continuous, active conduct of medical research’ towards a cure for cancer at UCSD.” The plaintiffs ask the court to make LICR continue to fund their research programs through 2023 at levels comparable to previous years. They also seek rights to the intellectual property they have generated, which would prevent LICR from filing patents on their work.

In addition, the scientists accuse LICR leadership of damaging their professional reputations. LICR, the lawsuit says, asserted in “reckless, unjustified and unsupported public statements” that the “Plaintiffs were not performing cancer research at a level on par with their seniority and the funding.” The lawsuit does not detail those statements, however.

Webster Cavenee, a former director of the LICR San Diego branch and current director of an LICR research program at UCSD for central nervous system cancers, declined to discuss the details of the lawsuit, but told ScienceInsider, “the San Diego branch was measurably the most recognized and honored branch in the institute.”

“These scientists are renowned,” says David Brenner, UCSD vice chancellor for health sciences, in a statement. “They have won numerous awards and garnered significant acclaim from both their peers and the world at large. They have made major contributions in all aspects of cancer science and medicine, from basic research to clinical care, and their work is not yet done.”

A UCSD spokesperson confirmed that because each of the researchers is a faculty member, “termination of their Ludwig support does not terminate their UC San Diego faculty status, and they will continue to occupy the same space at university faculty.” It’s unclear how a closing of the branch and tapering of LICR funding might affect funding from NIH or other agencies.