Prominent Scientist Switches Labs, Sparking Administrative Fireworks

Philadelphia's reputation for brotherly love suffers after Carlo Croce decides to remove himself and his staff from Fels Institute Cell lines have died. At least one grant deadline will be missed. Scientists speak with bitterness and resentment about their colleagues, and an entire university's commitment to science is being called into question. Things are far from business as usual at Temple University's Fels Institute in Philadelphia, where earlier this year institute director Carlo Croce an

Jun 24, 1991
Susan L-J Dickinson
Philadelphia's reputation for brotherly love suffers after Carlo Croce decides to remove himself and his staff from Fels Institute
Cell lines have died. At least one grant deadline will be missed. Scientists speak with bitterness and resentment about their colleagues, and an entire university's commitment to science is being called into question. Things are far from business as usual at Temple University's Fels Institute in Philadelphia, where earlier this year institute director Carlo Croce announced a plan to move his lab across town to Jefferson Medical College. Twenty-five of the other 31 principal investigators at Fels and their research teams--a total of more than 200 people, including postdocs, graduate students, technicians, and administrators--are moving with him.

It is not unusual for a scientist to change institutions. Many do so several times in a career, as opportunities for expanded research, career advancement, and collaboration with prestigious colleagues present themselves. But a move of this magnitude is far from ordinary, as are the ramifications.

Whether it is the prominence of the players involved (Croce, among other honors, holds an National Institutes of Health Outstanding Investigator Award, is editor-in-chief of Cancer Research, and last month announced his discovery of a gene that may be a determining factor in lung cancer), the proximity of the two institutions, or, as Joseph Gonnella, senior vice president of academic affairs and dean of Jefferson Medical College suggests, "the personalities of the people involved," things have turned ugly. Allegations of underhandedness, obstruction of science, and outright lying abound, and it is difficult to find anyone objective about the situation. Worst of all, science appears to be a casualty in this war. "The science is definitely being hurt," says Shyam Reddy, one of the investigators who will be moving with Croce on July 1.

In October 1988 Croce, 46, was recruited to Temple from the Wistar Institute, where he was associate director for eight years and where he had worked for 18 years. A medical oncologist, Croce received his M.D. from the University of Rome. His charge was to rejuvenate Fels and to build it into a strong biomedical institution with a focus on molecular biology and cancer research. To do so, Croce says, he was promised financial resources to recruit and support seven investigators for three years (the amount of time the scientists were given to secure peer-review funding) and a portion of the indirect costs reimbursements generated by grants garnered by his recruits.

Within 26 months Croce's faculty almost tripled, from 13 to 35; Fels' total employees more than quadrupled, from 45 to 195; and the number of research programs increased from one to five. A new Ph.D. program in genetics was established, and 23 graduate students enrolled. Fels' core grant from the National Cancer Institute, which had been on supplemental funding for two years pending the appointment of new scientific leadership, was renewed to the tune of $10.8 million over five years, and Fels was awarded a $2.5 million grant from the prestigious Lucille P. Markey Foundation. But while the staff and students at Fels more than quadrupled within this period, space for the institute's programs did not even double, increasing from 23,000 square feet to 40,000 square feet, and the troubles began.

Croce says that throughout 1990 broken promises about laboratory space, a freeze on his ability to appoint new faculty, and the university's lack of response to his request to form a department of molecular biology all coalesced into a very "negative signal." "I realized that these people are not really interested in expansion of the Fels Institute," he says. "And expansion was essential if we wanted to become a very strong and multidisciplinary cancer research institute."

Allen R. Myers, dean of Temple Medical School and currently interim director of Fels, says that Temple fulfilled all of the promises it had made regarding finances and space to Croce, and would have continued to do so.

Such was the setting last fall when Croce decided to accept an offer to become director of the Jefferson Cancer Institute and chairman of the departments of molecular biology and immunology. (Whether Croce solicited the offer or Jefferson made the first contact is another bone of contention between Croce and the Temple administration.) Simultaneously, Gerald Litwack, deputy director of Fels and a principal investigator at the institute for the past 27 years, accepted the chairmanship of biochemistry at Jefferson. Because Jefferson had a new, empty $85 million research building available and, as chairman, Croce was charged with recruiting for his new departments, on December 21 he made an open offer of employment to all Fels investigators. And things really began to disintegrate.

Myers, in the first interview he has given on the subject, charges that Croce, when asked explicitly if he was thinking of leaving Fels, denied having plans to do so, even though he had already accepted Jefferson's offer. Myers also charges that Croce used the months before he announced his intentions to leave to recruit Fels faculty from Temple; that he used a Temple address and phone number to begin recruiting graduate students to Jefferson; and that, before notifying Temple of his impending resignation, Croce approached NCI, the Markey Foundation, and the Fels Fund in an attempt to get institutional grants moved from Temple to Jefferson.

In return, Croce and other members of the Fels administration charge that the university has obstructed science at Fels by impounding funds, refusing to put through supply orders, and breaking with university precedent by not releasing equipment that was purchased on previous peer-review grants. Croce and colleagues even allege that, at one point, when Temple suspected Croce was working on a core grant application for Jefferson, the university took back all of Fels' copy paper. (Croce has, indeed, submitted to NCI a request for a core grant for Jefferson; NCI has scheduled a site visit for October.)

Croce threatened to sue Temple for breach of contract, and Temple charges that some of the departing investigators are trying to take equipment that was purchased with university funds. And so it goes. Though most of these issues are not yet resolved, and may never be, the facts are that Croce and Litwack were removed as director and deputy director of the Fels Institute on February 1. Richard Mayeux, a program analyst with the division of management survey and review in the office of the director of NIH, spent the last week of April at Fels, investigating Croce's charges that Temple has obstructed science. Though neither Mayeux nor NIH will discuss the issue until the report is completed, Myers says that at the end of his visit, Mayeux exonerated the university from any wrongdoing.

Whatever the conflicting allegations, science in some of the Fels labs has ground to a near halt. "I don't know whom to blame," says Reddy, a molecular oncologist who has identified five oncogenes. "As scientists we don't care what administration problems are. We are here and we are not able to produce."

Reddy's research relies on a series of permanent cell lines, cells into which he has inserted oncogenes for the purpose of studying the genes' expression and the mechanisms by which they transform a normal cell into a cancerous one. But in February, he says, he stopped receiving supplies. "I don't know why I'm not getting anything," he says. "But I couldn't even feed my cell lines, so they died."

The impact of the loss of the cell lines, he says, has been felt on several levels. Financially, his ability to get funding for his lab will be delayed: "In all of our grant applications we are border priority; I am at the 20th percentile, and the 18th percentile is getting funded. Even in normal circumstances, the reviewers would ask us to show more progress, and here is a time when we cannot show any."

Reddy is also worried about the scientists he sees as his major competitors. "For us, any time lost is a big loss," he says. Indeed, Reddy estimates that the entire affair has cost him the better part of a year, as it will take him at least a month to set up his lab at Jefferson and an additional two to three months to establish new cell lines.

Another Fels investigator, Martyn Darby, says that because of the lack of supplies he will miss the July 1 deadline for resubmission of his grant requests to NIH and the American Cancer Society. Says Darby, "March was the last time I got anything."

But he stresses that the scientists are not writing off this spring as a complete loss for their research. By borrowing from colleagues, trading with other labs, and just plain begging sales representatives, they are getting some work done. "Within Fels we barter. It's like the Stone Age," he says with frustration. "We're not talking large amounts of money here. We're talking about exchanging a simple buffer solution for a case of paper towels. The most critical item is radioisotopes for everyone, for which we cannot barter. These run in the range of $70 for a millicurie, which keeps you going for a couple of weeks."

Myers denies that the supply situation has changed. "To my knowledge, purchases are still being made," he says. The combative environment at Fels is taking its toll in another way as well, says another researcher: "It's very distracting when you know things are going on in the background but you don't really know what it is. That's as disruptive to your work as not having supplies."

Reddy and Darby say they are moving to Jefferson for the good of their research. Reddy, who is getting a five-year contract and more space than he currently has at Fels, says that because Jefferson is located in a safer neighborhood, his postdocs will be able to work later hours and on weekends. Darby, whose year at Fels has been his first as a principal investigator, will have three years of guaranteed funding as an assistant professor at Jefferson. "It was Croce's vision for the Fels Institute that attracted me to Temple," Darby says. "He aims to recruit high-class researchers. It was--and still will be--a good opportunity to interact with high-caliber scientists."

As for Fels, many of the departing investigators question Temple's commitment to developing strong science. "We were never strongly supported over the years," says Litwack. "We were paid lip service, but that's all." Even one of the scientists who is staying admits to some uncertainty about the university's commitment. "There is some misdirection of money; they are losing millions of dollars on football, and seem halfhearted about the science," says the investigator, who requested anonymity. "Those of us remaining are not certain of Temple's commitment to attract a good director."

But Myers discounts such doubts, pointing to the fact that a search committee has already been convened to find Croce's successor. "In order to be a medical school at the cutting edge you have to have people who are first-rate scientists," says Myers. "I think we can maintain and develop Fels into the kind of institution we can be proud of."

All of the players seem eager to put this messy chapter behind them. Myers is looking to the future, and Gonnella admits to feeling "sad," "embarrassed," and "disappointed" that the move has been so publicly problematic. And the scientists say that though they have lost some time and experienced some anxiety, they don't expect their programs to suffer any long-term ramifications. "I would not say that my career has been wrecked," says Darby, who hopes to have his lab running within weeks of arriving at Jefferson, and plans to resubmit grant requests for the October 1 deadline.

"The year hasn't been a complete waste," Darby says. "I've learned how to set up a lab, how much it costs to run, and which equipment I can do without. I know what characteristics I want from the people I employ.

"In some ways, it's been a very good testing ground."

Susan L-J Dickinson is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.