In the latest twist in the ongoing dispute over a prestigious Alzheimer’s disease research project, USC is siphoning off much of the project’s funding from UC San Diego.
Though the La Jolla campus has so far won in court — with a Superior Court judge giving it continued control of the Alzheimer’s initiative — it is losing most of the contracts, money and trust of the program’s participants across the country.
USC said it has obtained eight of the project’s 10 main contracts after convincing sponsors that it is better suited to manage their clinical trials of experimental drugs and therapies for the neurological disorder. Those sponsors are defecting from the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study, or ADCS, and shifting to an institute that USC recently opened in San Diego.
The remaining contracts are scheduled to stay with the original program.
UC San Diego confirmed the setback but said USC may be overstating matters by claiming that the contract transfers are worth up to $93.5 million. UC San Diego is still totaling its financial losses.
Officials at the university concede they failed to tightly manage the Alzheimer’s program.
UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep Khosla did not respond to requests for comment on the largest loss of research funding in the university’s history.
But campus officials said they are confident about rebuilding the Alzheimer’s program.
“The ADCS is alive and well at UCSD,” neuroscientist William Mobley, the project’s interim co-director, said last week.
His school will probably face mounting competition from USC, which wants to become a significant force in San Diego’s internationally renowned life sciences industry.
“I am very bullish on San Diego,” USC Provost Michael Quick said Thursday. “This is a ‘buy stock’ for the university. We see so much intellectual firepower down there and we want to be a part of it. Hopefully, we will soon be able to work out things with UCSD and get back to being partners for better research.”
The anger between the two universities runs deep, and much of it involves one man: Dr. Paul Aisen, who directed the Alzheimer’s program until he resigned in June to become head of the new Alzheimer’s institute at USC.
Aisen said he left because UC San Diego failed to provide enough resources for managing the project, which oversees clinical trials at more than 70 research centers nationwide.
Aisen and USC have been courting the program’s sponsors, which include drug giant Eli Lilly, the Alzheimer’s Assn., the U.S. Defense Department and the National Institutes of Health.
The program’s core operation, which the NIH funds with about $11 million per year, will remain with UC San Diego. So will a study underwritten by Toyama Chemical that was worth nearly $34 million two years ago.
Aisen said the rest of the program’s sponsors are moving their contracts, worth a combined $92.8 million to $93.5 million, to USC.
Meanwhile, Mobley said UC San Diego had provided everything that Aisen sought.
When Aisen left, he took control of the program’s computers and data. UCSD filed a lawsuit against USC, accusing Aisen, some of his co-workers and USC of conspiring to hijack the Alzheimer’s project.
A San Diego Superior Court judge ruled that the program belongs to UC San Diego, and she ordered USC to surrender whatever assets it took. A special master is overseeing the handoff of all the project’s data and other resources. The case could head to a jury trial or be moved to federal court, as USC has requested.
David Brenner, vice chancellor for health sciences and dean of the medical school at UC San Diego, had harsh opinions about USC’s moves. He said this month that USC is trying to buy its way to credibility in the life sciences. He also taunted the L.A. campus, saying that it is “0 for four” in its attempts to partner with or acquire institutions in San Diego County.
Brenner was referring to USC’s failed overtures to UC San Diego, the Scripps Research Institute, the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute and the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology.
But he also acknowledged that UC San Diego erred in not closely monitoring and regularly evaluating the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study.
Brenner was in Europe in recent days and couldn’t be reached for further comment.
Alzheimer’s researchers and patient advocacy groups have expressed concern that the legal fight is distracting from important science.
Cases of Alzheimer’s disease have been rising and are projected to soar as baby boomers age. The goal of the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study is to identify effective treatments and get them to patients as quickly as possible.
The project also has helped pioneer ways to detect biological signs of Alzheimer’s while patients are still alive — once thought to be impossible.
At this stage, Mobley said his job is to make sure the Alzheimer’s project at UC San Diego continues with the least disruption for researchers and patients.
“I’m not a lawyer, I’m not the chancellor. I’m just the guy on the ground trying to make it work,” he said.
“I don’t need any more trouble,” Mobley added. “My goal is to say, ‘If these folks are leaving, let’s help them get out the door safely and well. ... Let’s not quibble and fight about every last thing. Let’s get to the business of helping people with Alzheimer’s.”
Both UC San Diego and the new institute at USC are planning more clinical trials.
Mobley said funders are justifiably concerned about bitterness between USC and UC San Diego.
“We’re being asked, ‘How are you going to respond to this because it’s absolutely not OK,’” Mobley said. “People are worried about intellectual property. I think they’re worried about the primacy of their data.”
Eli Lilly stressed that point when Aisen and many of his colleagues defected to USC.
“Lilly has significant concerns that disruption to study administration has the potential to compromise the overall integrity of the study data,” Russell L. Barton, a Lilly executive, told UC San Diego in a July 23 email.
USC’s Quick said the school wants to proceed with the project for those who need the drugs.
“We are not big bullies. That is not my intent,” Quick said. “This is not about who wins and loses. It’s about building a better way to think about science, and how we think about our patients.”