Will $1B cancer IP theft suit trigger tighter vigilance on researchers' work?

The University of Pennsylvania's cancer research institute believes it's been ripped off to the tune of $1 billion. The center is pointing a finger at its former scientific director--a prestigious cancer researcher now CEO of Memorial Sloan-Kettering--as the inside man responsible for the heist. But an in-depth article on the high-profile confrontation by The New York Times is raising fresh questions about the allegations of stealth and subterfuge being made against the investigator.

The Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute filed suit against Craig Thompson back in mid-January, claiming that he used IP on cancer metabolism--a hot field in oncology research--to secretly launch Agios, a biotech company partnered with Celgene on new cancer remedies. And the university alleges that Thompson continued to conceal his role when asked about it.

"As a result of Dr. Thompson's concealment, the Institute did not learn of Thompson's involvement with Agios until late 2011," the suit claims, according to a report by the Philadelphia Inquirer. But The New York Times quotes several insiders saying that Thompson may not have been playing such a cloak-and-dagger role as the lawsuit makes out.

The Times piece, written by Andrew Pollack, includes a claim that Agios worked with Penn to get patents on work done there. And several sources involved in the discussion note that Agios may have been something less than a well-kept secret. "Yes, Penn knew about Agios," Michael J. Cleare, executive director of Penn's Center for Technology Transfer, tells the Times.

The suit, though, does amplify the heightened security that research institutions are applying to their intellectual property. Several biotechs owe their existence to groundbreaking investigative work done by academic researchers. With billions of dollars at stake for any successful new cancer drugs, the lawsuit indicates that institutes are more willing to play legal hardball to protect their share of the cash. And it's almost certain to make researchers and institutes far more vigilant about safeguarding their relative IP rights.

- here's the article from The New York Times