The Fallacy Of Turning A University Into A Drug Company


Leonard Zwelling

         We need to get back to first principles.

         Academic research is research for research’s sake. You cannot justify the pursuit of enzymology in deep-sea bacteria any other way. Why we cannot seem to get comfortable with the notion that everything done in a university laboratory is not going to cure cancer is beyond me.

         The above article makes this very clear. Planning to cure cancer is a bad idea. Planning to prevent it is a good one because we know that works. The cures for cancer have been both serendipitous and rare. MBAs don’t win Nobel Prizes in Medicine or Physiology.

         I found it amusing that this collaboration with Sanofi had a space-flavored name—Warp Drive. It kind of reminds me of Moon Shots and Apollo and other nonsense because the search for new treatments for cancer will not be found in the realm of science fiction. It will take hard work and leaps of insight that derive from hard work.

         I am going to make the case that if universities get back to doing what universities do best—research and teaching—while continuing to allow commercialization when that is thoughtful, purposeful and focused, then the universities can stop being so conflicted and their faculties can go back to the lab and the classroom where they belong.

         After five years plus, I still cannot see what benefit the Moon Shot Program at MD Anderson has derived despite tremendous expenditures which must explain the deficit to some extent.

         My proposal is a simple one.

         First, dump the leadership all the way up to Austin. The Chancellor, Executive Vice Chancellor and the Board of Regents have let the people of Texas down. They are spending money like drunken Navy SEALs and have very little to show for it beyond the pending layoff at Anderson. They are trying to salvage failed cancer programs in San Antonio and Tyler through amalgamations with Anderson when Anderson itself is failing. How smart is that?

         Next, are these the Division Heads that will bring Anderson back? I doubt it. Many of them are the ones who have allowed the clinical enterprise to lag. How are they supposed to restore revenue streams and patients to the templates? What were they thinking when they allowed the administrative leadership to install EPIC and why?     

         Finally, where is the Board of Visitors, the putative business geniuses that oversee Anderson? I cannot believe they would run their businesses the way that Anderson is being run now. If they did, they couldn’t buy those $250,000 tables under the big top to be entertained by Happy the Clown and the other comic relief currently occupying the top of the Pickens Building.

         It is time to take a good hard look at the strategy employed by the DePinho Administration to further the mission of MD Anderson and the degree to which President DePinho has adhered to the core values of Discovery, Caring and Integrity.

         By any measure, he has failed. It’s time to give someone else a chance, preferably someone who actually cares about basic research, students, trainees and patient care. How novel would that be?

Leonard Zwelling