Skip to Content

Penn's Cancer Institute Is Suing A Former Top Aide and His Firm in the Theft of Intellectual Property


Jan. 13--The University of Pennsylvania's cancer research institute is suing its former scientific director and a biotechnology company he founded for more than $1 billion, accusing him of stealing intellectual property and trying to profit from it.

Craig B. Thompson, who joined Penn in 1999 as scientific director of the Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute, led pioneering studies of the metabolism of cancer cells, according to the lawsuit filed last month in federal court in New York City.

In violation of institute contracts, Thompson "created a for-profit corporation that he concealed from" his employer to capitalize on discoveries made during his decade at the nonprofit research center, the suit contends.

Thompson, now president and CEO of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, on Thursday said by e-mail through his lawyer: "The allegations in this lawsuit are unfounded and without merit. It is unfortunate that the Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute has chosen to go down this path."

Cancer metabolism -- the study of the hallmark way in which malignant cells produce and consume energy -- emerged as a hot field in the 1990s. Hundreds of researchers, universities, and companies, including pharmaceutical giants such as GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca, are now investing in the field, hoping to find drugs to effectively starve cancer cells to death.

In 2006, Penn named Thompson the new director of its Abramson Cancer Center, which includes the research institute.

In 2007, Thompson and two other leading cancer-metabolism researchers -- Lewis Cantley of Harvard Medical School and Tak W. Mak of the University of Toronto -- founded Agios Inc., according to news reports and the company's website. Agios is based in the biotech mecca of Cambridge, Mass.

During the ensuing three years, Agios news releases and news coverage described the company's focus on developing novel cancer-metabolism drugs, Thompson's role as a founder, and a licensing agreement with the Summit, N.J.-based Celgene Corp. Celgene, which has invested $150 million in Agios, is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

Thompson not only failed to inform the Abramson Institute of his new enterprise, but misrepresented his role when Penn officials asked about it, the lawsuit alleges.

"As a result of Dr. Thompson's concealment," the complaint says, "the Institute did not learn of Thompson's involvement with Agios until late 2011."

A lawyer for Agios declined to comment.

In late 2011, Thompson resigned from Penn to head Sloan-Kettering, where he had already been working while on "a one-year leave of absence from the institute," the complaint says.

It does not specify data, inventions, or technical information that were allegedly taken, but says Thompson acknowledged in memos that during his tenure "the Institute has developed considerable intellectual property."

The suit alleges that Thompson "knowingly misrepresented" to Agios and Celgene that he had sole rights to the cancer-metabolism research he led at the institute.

Agios and Celgene have identified three cellular targets but do not yet have any compounds in clinical trials.

"The Institute has suffered damages in an amount that cannot currently be calculated but is estimated to ultimately exceed $1 billion," the suit says.

Contact staff writer Marie McCullough at 215-854-2720 or

Posted: January 2012