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California universities battle over Alzheimer’s research

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    Tal Cohen, from left, and his wife Giedre Cohen, 37, of Calabasas, Calif., and Carrie Richardson, 34, and Mary Salter, of Montgomery, Ala., chat during a break at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference in Washington on Saturday.

LOS ANGELES » One university’s effort to poach a star faculty member at another Southern California university has devolved into a legal battle that some fear may impede Alzheimer’s disease research.

The University of California, San Diego, has filed a lawsuit over last month’s defection of Alzheimer’s disease expert Paul Aisen and other employees to the University of Southern California, which has worked to bolster its reputation in medicine and sciences and has offered lucrative compensation packages to public university faculty.

UC San Diego alleges that USC, Aisen and eight colleagues conspired to take $100 million in federal and private funding, and research data involving more than 1,000 patients to USC’s new Alzheimer’s study center, The Los Angeles Times reported Sunday.

Aisen and USC deny wrongdoing. They say UC San Diego is trying to limit their ability to change jobs and is threatening the data’s security.

A Superior Court judge in San Diego last week denied USC’s request to block UC San Diego’s access to the data.

Aisen has headed the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study since 2007 and is running a clinical trial to determine if a drug developed by Eli Lilly and Co. can slow or prevent Alzheimer’s in people who do not yet have memory problems.

Maria Carrillo, chief science officer for the international nonprofit Alzheimer’s Association, said if the legal dispute isn’t settled quickly it could "slow progress down and maybe even interrupt" the clinical trial and related studies. The charity recently awarded a four-year, $8 million grant for a Harvard-based study linked to the work at UC San Diego.

Carrillo said the association wants "a speedy resolution" of the lawsuit to keep research on track.

Richard Seligman, the associate vice president for research administration at Caltech who has more than four decades of experience dealing with grants, said he’s never heard of such a lawsuit. It’s common for researchers to jump from one school to another and to receive permission from their original campus and funders to take the grants with them, he said.

"Universities are extremely collegial and collaborative and hardly ever get into disputes" about those moves, with an understanding that science transcends campus boundaries, Seligman said. Sometimes universities retain part of large grants for remaining faculty, he said.

UC San Diego medical school dean David A. Brenner and Gary S. Firestein, another top administrator, wrote Thursday in The San Diego Union-Tribune that Aisen’s actions are "akin to an airline pilot hijacking a plane, then justifying the act by saying he’s a better aviator than the airline’s owners, other pilots, passengers and crew." They said the moves by Aisen and USC are "are breaches of academic, medical and legal standards of conduct."

The National Institutes of Health and its subsidiary National Institute on Aging provide about $11 million a year to the UC Alzheimer’s center. Its officials confirmed that UC San Diego still holds that grant but they’d have to determine whether funding ultimately stays put or moves with Aisen, who is the principal investigator.

The agency said in a statement that it is "closely monitoring" the San Diego situation "with a focus on the safety of study participants and the integrity and utility of data."

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