Major Cancer Center's CEO, Staff Resign over Chinese Payments

A Call for Moffitt to 'Come Clean'

Nick Mulcahy

December 20, 2019

The top executive at the Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute in Tampa, Florida, and a fellow executive have resigned this week for "violations of conflict of interest rules through their work in China," according to a press statement from the institution that offered scant details.

Alan List, MD, chief executive officer and president of the center, and Thomas Sellers, PhD, the center's director, have both left.

Four Moffitt researchers have also undergone "separation" from the institution related to the same circumstances, the statement noted.

The National Cancer Institute–designated center said that it found "several compliance violations" after initiating a review of staff members' collaborations with research institutions in China.

The internal review was prompted by an earlier warning to US research centers from the National Institutes of Health about "foreign efforts to influence or compromise US researchers." Moffitt said its review "focused on its team members' participation in China's 'Thousand Talents' Program, which recruits global researchers and academics."

On Twitter, US Congressman Chris Sprowls (R-FL) said that the resignations were tied to secret payments from China and suggested that illegal exploitation of US biomedical research was intended.

He further commented: "We cannot allow China or other foreign governments to covertly exploit American research paid for by American taxpayers."

Moffitt said there is no indication that the institution's research was compromised, but provided no details.

The abrupt resignations are related to "possible exploitation of American-funded research by China," according to a news report in the Tampa Bay Times.

Moffitt must "come clean" about exactly what center staff have done with Chinese entities, comments an accompanying editorial in the newspaper

Jose Olivia, speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, called for an investigation in a Twitter post.

Moffitt said that it is now "thoroughly reviewing" its 12-year partnership with China's Tianjin Medical University Cancer Institute and Hospital for the training of oncology practitioners.

Moffitt and Tianjin have conducted joint research projects whereby graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, physician scientists, and research nurses from Tianjin came to Moffitt from training. Tianjin is located in a free trade zone that expedited approvals for clinical trials, according to a 2018 Moffitt release cited in the Tampa Bay Tribune.

"This was an unfortunate but necessary decision," said Timothy J. Adams, Moffitt board chairman, about the staff resignations, which were reportedly pressured.

The Florida center also acknowledged that "in recent years, the federal government has become concerned about foreign interests targeting US universities and academic medical centers to duplicate technology and intellectual property."

In a related matter, three researchers at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, were fired in April 2019 because of concerns about spying and intellectual property theft, as reported by the New York Times and other news outlets.

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