Turbulent Reign Over: Top Exec at Top Cancer Center Resigns

Nick Mulcahy

March 21, 2017

The president of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Ronald DePinho, MD, announced his resignation earlier this month after 5 and a half years of controversial leadership, including recent years in which the center struggled financially.

For now, interventional radiologist Marshall Hicks, MD, is acting as interim president, while the center conducts a national search for a replacement.

Dr DePinho will continue on at the center and move into a job in translational research.

MD Anderson reported a loss of $460 million in the past 16 months due to operational expenses exceeding income. In January 2017, Dr DePinho, who makes $2 million a year, announced 1000 job cuts at the center, including about 800 layoffs and the rest through attrition. That same week, he donated a $208,000 performance bonus back to MD Anderson.

Dr DePinho's tenure was marked by grand vows and acts.

Soon after arriving in 2011, he appeared at a fundraiser in San Antonio and predicted that cancer would be cured during his tenure as president of MD Anderson. If not, his tenure would be a failure, he commented, "And I will not fail," he dramatically declared onstage with US journalists Cokie Roberts and Sam Donaldson.

He launched the MD Anderson Moon Shots program, his signature research effort that is tasked with curing cancer and that predated the Obama administration effort, similarly named the Cancer Moonshot.

Dr DePinho's resignation statement was distributed as a video to staff on March 8 and also had elements of drama. "I could have done a better job administratively, a better job listening, a better job communicating," he said. "Forgive me for my shortcomings. I regret them, but I was, and continue, to be committed to saving lives and reduce suffering," he said.

In a statement, William McRaven, the head of the University of Texas System, which includes MD Anderson, thanked Dr DePinho for his service.

"It was his vision and passion for ending cancer, with new ideas and innovations, that set him apart from other top candidates," he said, referring to the reasons that Dr DePinho was hired, despite a relative lack of administrative experience while a researcher at Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard in Boston, Massachusetts.

One critic hopes that MD Anderson's next president has very different characteristics and that moonshots are not part of the candidacy.

"Next time, how about a hefty dose of reality. Find someone who actually understands human cancer to the extent possible in 2017 to be the next president of MD Anderson. Things will go better," writes Len Zwelling, MD, a retired medical oncologist and former vice president for research administration at MD Anderson, in his blog, which is mostly devoted to observations about the Texas cancer center.

Dr Zwelling has also decried seven-figure salaries for top administrators at MD Anderson.

High-profile controversy regularly occurred at MD Anderson during Dr DePinho's tenure as president.

For example, in 2012, charges of nepotism emerged over an $18 million grant that was awarded to MD Anderson and Rice University in Houston for a research-business incubator project involving principal investigator Lynda Chin, MD, who was a physician at MD Anderson at that time and who is married to Dr DePinho.

The grant was awarded by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), a state agency, but reportedly was handled in a suspicious manner as the higher-ups at CPRIT hastily processed the grant application, circumventing CPRIT scientific reviewers, according to a 2012 Houston Chronicle investigative report.

The scandal resulted in two Nobel laureates and multiple others resigning from the CPRIT scientific board, citing concerns about favoritism and politics.

More recently, after at least $62 million in expenditures, MD Anderson ended a grandiose big-data project that was a collaboration with IBM's Watson artificial intelligence system but produced no working product.

The "ultimate goal" of the project is "to elevate the standard of cancer care world-wide," according to an audit report that surfaced last month from the University of Texas System, which paraphrased the project's initial leader and creator, Dr Chin.

The collaboration, which was cited for procurement irregularities by the audit report, was supposed to guide community-based clinicians around the world in the treatment of many cancer types. However, the would-be innovation was plagued by cost overruns and never moved beyond work on algorithms for five leukemias and one type of lung cancer.

The last 6 years also saw other notable irregularities, such as when Dr DePinho appeared on a CNBC business show, touting the stock of Aveo Pharmaceuticals, a biotech company he cofounded with Dr Chin. But only days before the TV show, a scientific advisory meeting revealed that the US Food and Drug Administration had significant concerns about the company's lead product, a kidney cancer agent, tivozanib, which was eventually rejected by the agency.

Dr DePinho was the fourth president in the 75-year history of MD Anderson. The center has long been known for its ambition, according to James Olson, PhD, the author of a book on the institution, Making Cancer History .

Women are better at these things. Dr Len Zwelling

In his blog, Dr Zwelling hopes that the next president is ambitious, especially with regard to patient care and other "core values," but believes it is time for the institution's first-ever female leader.

"I fear that most men who have punched all the tickets required of the next president have also acquired some unseemly personal characteristics that seem to emerge in association with Y-chromosomes — overt aggression, over-developed egocentricity bordering on narcissism, and the inability to see win-win as the desired outcome of disputes," writes Dr Zwelling. "Women are better at these things and these things are needed at [MD Anderson] yesterday."

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