Sabatini, biotech founder and mTOR pioneer, ousted after sexual harassment investigation

David Sabatini, M.D., Ph.D., scientific founder of several biotechs, has been ousted from his lab after a sexual harassment investigation. The high-profile cell signaling and cancer metabolism scientist is “no longer associated” with either the Whitehead Institute or the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. 

Sabatini is best known as one of the discoverers of mTOR. The discovery, which led Sabatini to refer to himself as mTORman, spurred research that established mTOR as a key regulator of growth in animals. Deregulation of the protein kinase is linked to diseases including cancer and epilepsy. Drugs including Novartis’ Afinitor and Pfizer’s Torisel inhibit mTOR.

More recently, Sabatini has helped set up Navitor Pharmaceuticals, Raze Therapeutics and KSQ Therapeutics as a scientific founder. The biotechs built on Sabatini’s research into areas including cell nutrient signaling and cancer metabolism.

Ruth Lehmann, Ph.D., director of the Whitehead Institute, emailed staff Friday to disclose the split with Sabatini. Lehmann, in an email later picked up by the Boston Globe and shared on social media, said an investigation into Sabatini by a law firm found the researcher “violated the Institute’s policies on sexual harassment among other Whitehead policies unrelated to research misconduct.”

The investigation was triggered by the results of a diversity, equity and inclusion survey that revealed “issues of particular concern in the Sabatini Lab.” Details of the specific allegations against Sabatini are yet to emerge.

Sabatini’s exit leaves the future of the 39 members of his lab up in the air. The human resources team at Whitehead, which employs 35 of the researchers, plans to hold one-on-one meetings with all of the team members this week with a view to ensuring their “smooth transition to another lab setting,” Lehmann said.

The fate of the research underway at the lab is also uncertain. Sabatini is listed as the principal investigator on six active projects funded by the National Institutes of Health that are collectively worth $2.4 million. The research covers areas including cancer development and Alzheimer’s disease.