Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Rendering Unto Caesar - What the Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute vs Thompson Says About the Loss of the Academic Medical Mission

A case, reported by the New York Times as involving an intellectual property dispute, should create a lot of cognitive dissonance about the state of the academic medical mission.

Litigation Involving the Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute and Dr Craig B Thompson

Here is how the Times outlined the story:
The president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York is in a billion-dollar dispute with his former workplace, a cancer institute at the University of Pennsylvania, over accusations that he walked away with groundbreaking research and used it to help start a valuable biotechnology company.

In a lawsuit, the Leonard and Madlyn Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute at Penn described its former scientific director, Dr. Craig B. Thompson, as 'an unscrupulous doctor' who 'chose to abscond with the fruits of the Abramson largess.'

In particular,
In the suit, the Abramson cancer institute, which has received more than $100 million from the philanthropist Leonard Abramson and his family, says that Dr. Thompson concealed his role in starting Agios, which has attracted investors with a potentially new way to treat cancer. The institute says Dr. Thompson’s actions deprived it of proceeds that could support future research, causing it damages that could exceed $1 billion.

So presumably the Abramson Institute is alleging that Thompson took its intellectual property and put it into Agios, and the Institute therefore wants compensation. Note that the Institute does not appear to be alleging either that Thompson was supposed to be its employee, but actually was working for Agios at the time he was supposed to be working for the institute; or that Thompson hid a a conflict of interest created by his financial relationship with Agios that could have affected how he fulfilled his professional responsibilities there.

Note further that certain other parties declared that they are not part of this dispute. These included Dr Thompson's current employer:
Sloan-Kettering declined to comment, saying it was not a party to the lawsuit....

These also included the University of Pennsylvania:
Susan E. Phillips, senior vice president for Penn Medicine, said that the suit had been filed not by the university but by the research institute, a separate entity. She said the university was investigating the accusations.

The nature of this dispute ought to generate several kinds of cognitive dissonance.

Protecting Intellectual Property vs Upholding the Academic Mission at the University of Pennsylvania

On one of its web pages, the Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute describes its history:
The Abramson Cancer center of the University of Pennsylvania provides each patient with exemplary care though a comprehensive team approach, personalized service, education and outreach, and nationally recognized cancer research programs.

The web page describes the institute as simply part of the larger University of Pennsylvania cancer center, which came to be named for the Abramson family:
Penn's Cancer Center was renamed in 2002 as the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania, recognizing the Abramson family's $100 million commitment to support comprehensive cancer research and care.

Thus it seems that the Abramson institute is simply a piece of a traditional academic medical center.

The academic mission is traditionally described as the creation and teaching of knowledge. Thus, if an academic institution creates new knowledge, its should then disseminate it, not own it. Of course, in the US, since the Bayh-Dole act was passed, academic institutions were given the ability to patent their discoveries, and began to protect and sequester the knowledge they contained, rather than disseminating it.

In this case, however, one part of a large university and a large academic medical center seems to be concentrating entirely on its right of ownership of intellectual property, not the traditional academic mission. The fact that this dispute has lead to litigation suggests that the academic organization is now intent on protecting, rather than disseminating knowledge. The dispute appears to be between a commercial research company and its allegedly errant former hired manager.

The Abramson Institute: Part or Independent of the Academic Medical Center?  

A little more digging suggests that the nature of the Abramson institute is not as clear as is described in its web-page. A GuideStar search revealed that the institute is actually legally independent from the university. It filed its own 990 form (latest version, covering 2009-2010, here.)

The filing did list various entities, including the Clinical Care Associates of the University of Pennsylvania Health System, and the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania as "related tax-exempt organizations."

However, this filing should create cognitive dissonance about what the underlying nature of the Institute? Is it part of the University of Pennsylvania and its medical center, or is independent but cooperating?

This dissonance is only enhanced by the ambiguous response of the University of Pennsylvania to the lawsuit. If the Institute is part of the University, then the University ought to be party to the lawsuit, it would seem.

This filing with the US government did underline the Institute's commitment to disseminating research. A description of its tax "exempt purposes" included:
Education - scientists at the Institute actively share their discoveries with the research community, physicians, and students.

As above, this statement of purpose appears not to fit with the filing of a lawsuit to obtain damages due to the alleged taking of intellectual property. If this really were the Institute's mission, would not they want the intellectual property liberated so it could be actively shared? The cognitive dissonance about the mission of the Institute and of the University versus the protection and sequestration of intellectual property is thus increased.

Upholding the Academic Mission vs Staying Uninvolved at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

As an aside, note that Dr Thompson is now not just working for Agios. In fact, he has been President of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center since 2010 (look here). Just like the Abramson Cancer Center, Sloan-Kettering is an academic medical center with the traditional mission of teaching, research, and patient care. Here is its mission statement:
As one of the world's premier cancer centers, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center is committed to exceptional patient care, leading-edge research, and superb educational programs.

So one would think that people there ought to be concerned by allegations that its current president took intellectual property without authorization, and that he is "an unscrupulous doctor." If these allegations were to be proven false, they seemingly would represent a major, unwarranted slur on its and his reputation. If they were to be proven true, they would indicate that current leadership might not have the character to uphold the mission. Either outcome would be serious and have serious implications. However, at the moment, this noted academic medical institution has expressed neither outrage about possibly false accusations nor resolve to investigate the matter and then weed out any leaders not devoted to the mission.

Thus, the apparent intention of the leadership of Memorial Sloan-Kettering to stay uninvolved with this case ought to generate more cognitive dissonance.


The cognitive dissonances evoked by the case of the Abramson Institute vs Dr Thompson ought to inspire questions about what our academic medical institutions have become.  While they proclaim their devotion to research and teaching to improve health and health care, and advance science, they may increasingly act like commercial research organizations whose main goal is to generate increased revenue from products and services, and in this case, from intellectual property. 

It is hard to see how this emphasis on holding onto rather than disseminating new knowledge will be good in the long run for science, learning, or patient care.

We are now a good 30+ years into our ill-fated American experiment about the effects of turning medicine commercial and making health care a commodity. So far, it has yielded the highest costs in the world, but declining access, mediocre quality, and demoralized professionals.  Squabbling among top researchers and leading academic medical institutions over the ownership of intellectual property for the sake of revenue, not dissemination, is the latest symbol of the decline of our health care.

I can only hope that all the parties involved suddenly remember that they are supposed to be creating and disseminating knowledge, not just getting rich. 


JPB said...

Amen, Dr. Poses. Keep it coming

Mickey Nardo said...

What a remarkable story! Medical Care as "intellectual property"? The "the latest symbol of the decline of our health care." in a long line of others...