The University of California, San Diego triumphed over USC last week in a legal battle for control of an ongoing Alzheimer’s research program that doesn’t exactly enhance the chances of the project’s success.
When Dr. Paul Aisen left UC San Diego in June to establish a rival Alzheimer’s program at USC, eight colleagues joined him. That was a blow to UC; he had headed the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study (ADCS) since 2007. But when Aisen laid claim to the project’s database, more than $100 million in government funding was suddenly put at risk.
On Friday, San Diego Superior Court Judge Judith Hayes settled the dispute between the two universities, ruling in a lawsuit brought by UC that it would get the database that includes information from dozens of clinical trials across the country. She warned USC not to monkey around with the data before a special master can be appointed to oversee the transfer of control, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.
UC San Diego and USC are wealthy competitors for billions of dollars from the federal government to fund biomedical research. USC received $180 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2014, less than half its competitor’s $390 million. But USC has, by far, the deeper pockets as an institution. Its endowment is $4.5 billion, compared to UC San Diego’s paltry $752 million.
Aisen and USC argued that he had simply exercised his right to change employers and complied with accepted standards of academic freedom by taking his work with him. Richard Seligman, the associate vice president for research administration at Caltech, told the Los Angeles Times it was not unusual for academics to leave with their research. He said he had never heard of a lawsuit over the issue. That argument did not carry the day in court.
A fight over academic talent is not new, but the high stakes involved in this battle highlight a shift of academic institutions from scholarship and education to corporate models of behavior. Terry W. Hartle of the American Council on Education told the Times, “It is a matter of great concern to public research university presidents that private universities can pay far higher salaries to distinguished faculty and scientists and can lure them away.”
The fight over Alzheimer’s research puts the future health of aging Baby Boomers in play. The extended legal battle feared by observers a week ago has not yet materialized; the judge said she would issue her injunction this week. But if it happens, Aisen and those who moved with him will be separated from the research.
Around 5.3 million people currently suffer from Alzheimer’s and the number is expected to significantly grow. A report from the Alzheimer’s Association this month projected that 28 million boomers, living longer than previous generations, would develop the disease, and treatment would consume 25% of Medicare expenditures by 2040.
The ADCS, formed in 1991 by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) and UC San Diego, holds research data on more than 1,000 patients and is running a clinical trial on a potentially important Eli Lilly and Co. drug that may, or may not, delay the onset of Alzheimer’s or possibly prevent it.