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Fired GDB Head Says Hospital Seized His Work and Grants in Bitter IP Dispute

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Jamie Cuticchia, who until November 2 served as the director of the GDB Human Genome Database, told BioInform last week that his dismissal from the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto should serve as a warning to all academic bioinformaticists that a similar fate may not be outside the realm of possibility.

“This is a dark day for bioinformatics,” said Cuticchia. “What’s at risk here is that at any time a goon squad can come in and take your scientific work and hand it over to someone else.”

The work of bioinformaticists, he said “is software and data. In essence the hospital has said that I as an academic can’t take my work with me to another institution or even to another department within the same institution.”

Cuticchia, who has worked with the GDB since 1992, said the hospital “seized his office” on October 19, obtaining access to his personal and HSC-related papers, e-mail, and computer files, and taking control of all of his grants. He was notified of his termination on November 2.

He said he has not yet received an explanation from the hospital for his dismissal and first learned about it “when I picked up the [Toronto] paper Monday morning and they said I had stolen a hospital asset,” he said, adding that his attorney’s phone calls, e-mails, and faxes to the HSC have all gone unanswered.

According to HSC spokeswoman Cyndy DeGiusti, Cuticchia was “terminated with cause.” DeGiusti told BioInform that “the hospital has filed a notice of action, which is the preliminary step in a potential lawsuit asking for the return of a hospital asset.”

The asset in question is the domain name www.gdb.org, which GDB staff members had transferred from the hospital to a non-profit company in the United States, GDB Human Genome Database Inc. “It appears from the information that our internal auditors have found that some of the staff in our bioinformatics center were working to commercialize an asset that the hospital owns without any involvement from the hospital,” said DeGiusti.

However, Cuticchia argued that “no known hospital policies were circumvented” in the transfer of the domain name and that he had no personal involvement in the transaction, which was carried out by GDB staff members Connie Talbot, Gregg Silk, and Chris Porter.

HSC filed a lawsuit against “Cuticchia et al.” on November 5. It was not immediately known what the charges are in the suit against Cuticchia, although an attorney representing him said that “the suit [is] frivolous in nature” and that “a variety of counter suits are anticipated.”

The HSC has also sued Talbot and Porter. According to their attorney John Hornick, the two men were charged on November 1 with “misappropriation of the hospital’s resources, funds, proprietary interest, and business opportunities ... including the GDB domain name.”

 

A Thorny Past…

 The GDB has had its share of troubles since its creation in 1990. Initially hosted at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, it received funding from the US Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health, and other groups. But its grants were cut in 1998 when the DOE dropped its non-sequencing genomics projects.

Cuticchia found a way to keep the project alive at the HSC, however, backed with capital from IBM, Oracle, and an anonymous donor. Cuticchia has raised over $50 million in grants and contributions so far to support the GDB.

The resource, which relies on submissions of curated genomic data from researchers worldwide, proved to be very popular, especially with commercial users. Celera Genomics, Incyte Genomics, DoubleTwist, NetGenics, Affymetrix, and a number of pharmaceutical and biotech companies are among the top users of the site. GDB staffers soon found that these users were hitting the site to the point of abuse, causing massive clogging of the GDB server.

Deciding that this heavy usage was a potential revenue stream for the struggling effort, Cuticchia said the GDB began to consider developing a new version of the software that would guarantee continued free access to academic researchers while requiring a license from commercial users — much like SwissProt’s current model.

Cuticchia said that the HSC “spent approximately a year studying whether or not they wanted to be involved in directly funding the redevelopment of GDB” — a process that involved a hired consultant, estimates from several IT vendors, and a full-scale market study — resulting in a written communication in November 2000 to Cuticchia that HSC decided it would be “inappropriate” to offer a commercial license in addition to the free resource. Cuticchia said HSC then granted him the authority to pursue the effort on his own.

DeGiusti denied that HSC had at any time pursued commercialization of the GDB and argued that Cuticchia’s efforts were not authorized by the hospital.

“That’s a fiction that is being presented,” she said. “It’s not based on the facts that we have located in the audit that has taken place.”

However, BioInform has obtained an abridged copy of a marketing report that HSC commissioned from the polling firm AngusReid (now Ipsos-Reid). The report, ”GDB 2000 Market Potential Assessment,” carries the subhead “Prepared for The Hospital for Sick Children” and is dated August 2000.

The findings of the report were not provided.

Cuticchia said that as part of HSC’s initial investigation into commercialization options, “their attorney recommended the creation of a for-profit company that would handle software licenses, and a non-profit company that would hold the GDB domain and keep the public data free and unencumbered for use by academics.”

Upon the HSC’s withdrawal from the project, Cuticchia said, Talbot, Silk, and Porter created the non-profit GDB Human Genome Database Inc. in Maryland and transferred the domain name “as was the original intention.”

 

…and a CLOUDY Future

 Cuticchia said the “recent difficulties” between him and HSC began when he and a group of undisclosed investors went to the hospital on October 18 to present the results of his independent effort to secure funding for the proposed commercial arm of the GDB.

According to Cuticchia, he was asked to resign only hours after the meeting. On the following day, he and Silk were suspended and three days later his administrative assistant, Janet Denton, “was unable” to get into her office and the keys to her desk were allegedly confiscated before she was ultimately escorted from the building, he said.

Cuticchia, Silk, Denton, Porter, and Cuticchia’s wife, HSC employee Wendy Parris, have since been terminated, Cuticchia said. Two additional GDB staffers have resigned, he added.

The hospital’s motives remain unclear. Although DeGiusti said that accusations of commercial interest on the part of the hospital “are completely false and erroneous,” Cuticchia said that it had recently come to his attorney’s attention that “a for-profit company was created by HSC’s attorney in 1999, but the GDB staff and principal investigators were not informed of this by HSC.”

“They want to commercialize it and they want to make money,” said Hornick.

Adding to the complexity of this already messy situation is the fact that neither HSC nor the GDB currently holds the rights to the database, which are still held by the US government because it provided the original funding.

Therefore, the US government “has the power to give rights to whomever it wants to keep this database going,” said Hornick. “So the Canadian court can’t tell the US government not to give rights to anyone it chooses.”

Hornick said that he filed for those rights on behalf of the GDB last week.

The case indicates “how important it is to clearly and unambiguously document the chain of title to intellectual property rights as an IP asset gets passed on to successive groups,” observed Dan Appelman, an attorney for Heller-Ehrman who has no involvement with the case.

“An even more interesting aspect of this dispute is the perspective it gives on the worldwide race to commercialize genetic research, and the countervailing interest in putting such research in the public domain to be used by everyone,” added Appleman.

The situation serves as a warning to other academic researchers who are sitting on a potentially lucrative product, said Cuticchia. “If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone,” he said.

Cuticchia said he still retains an unpaid position at the University of Toronto with “unblemished” status and is in discussions with the university for a full-time position.

— BT and KL

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