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Strapped Texas cancer centre built pricey office suite for president’s wife — UPDATED

The financially stressed MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, seems to have invested at least US$1.5 million in capital funds in a new ‘corporate’ office suite that will be home to Lynda Chin, the wife of MD Anderson president Ronald DePinho.  The revelations come in an article published today in The Cancer Letter.

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Cancer Letter

The Letter used the Texas Public Information Act to obtain 680 pages of documents that describe the project as “Dr. Chin Office Renovation”.  However, the article argues:

A renovation it was not. The 25,000-square-foot suite, much of it south-facing, is new, located on the sixth floor of the just-constructed South Campus Research Building III.

Chin, who moved to MD Anderson when DePinho became the cancer centre’s president in 2011, is the scientific director of the fledgling Institute for Applied Cancer Science (IACS), a drug-discovery centre, and chair of the cancer centre’s department of genomic medicine.  The office was built to house the genomic medicine department and the IACS, which aims to enlist drug companies in promising collaborations. For instance, the IACS in December announced a partnership with drug-maker GlaxoSmithKline, with the goal of producing cancer-fighting antibodies.

Among the itemized expenses reported in The Cancer Letter article are nearly $28,000 for settees, lounge chairs and occasional tables for the IACS, and about $210,000 for translucent walls in the 2,323-square-metre space. The spending on the walls required a variance, or special permission, from the University of Texas system’s executive vice-chancellor for health affairs, Kenneth Shine. (An architect’s rendering of some of the translucent panels is pictured above.)

In a statement to Nature, MD Anderson defended its actions, noting that the IACS has raised $15 million in donations:

The renovations of space for the Institute for Applied Cancer Science and Department of Genomic Medicine — both new entities for MD Anderson — transformed a traditional academic office suite to a work environment and meeting area for a science/business enterprise, a concept new not only to MD Anderson, but most of academic medicine… The existing space was not configured to support this new concept.

The “redesigned” space, it added, would “create an open environment of communication, provide an appropriate meeting space with high-level industry decision makers and support a new suite in computational biology”.

This is not the first time that Chin has landed in the public spotlight since she arrived at the huge, high-profile centre.  Last year, there was an outcry after an IACS team headed by Chin was awarded an $18-million grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) that bypassed scientific peer review.

The 17 May issue of The Cancer Letter (available only to subscribers) reported that DePinho announced austerity measures — such as suspension of merit raises and slowing of hiring — in an e-mail to MD Anderson employees on 15 May. It read, in part:

For most of Fiscal Year 2013 (FY13), our operating expense has exceeded our operating revenue — meaning that we’ve spent more than we’ve made from providing our patient care services. What we’re facing today is much like what you’d face with your own checkbook if you spent more than you were paid each month for several months.

Updated with new comments from MD Anderson.

Comments

  1. Report this comment

    James Vance said:

    The term “honeypot” just keeps becoming far more apt and much more relevant to describe how the management of CPRIT views its flexibility in allocating financial resources, regardless of how much good science might be accomplished through the institution’s dispensation of grant funds.

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    David States said:

    $1.5m for 25k sq ft of space works out to $60/sqft. Maybe high for an office park but not for space in an academic research bldg. The bigger question is whether IACS needs 25k sqft of administrative space. At 125 sqft/person, that works out to a staff of 200 and a payroll of more than $10M per year. If they generated $15M in new donations last year, that is not much of a return on investment. Wonder how Texas donors will feel when they learn that most of their money is going to pay for administrative overhead.

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    Scott Merville said:

    Dear Meredith:
    Please allow me to provide a bit of context about the renovation of 12,000 square feet of office and lab space to accommodate our Department of Genomic Medicine and our Institute for Applied Cancer Science at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

    Planning for this project began in the fall of 2011 and it was completed in 2012. IACS staff began to move in early that year, so it’s unrelated to MD Anderson’s current fiscal challenges.

    Out of this $1.5 million renovation project, $547,434 covered furniture and renovations for 9,000 square feet of space for multiple offices and meeting rooms for IACS and the department. The remaining $900,000 was invested in converting biology labs to chemistry labs by adding fume hoods and modifying mechanical, electrical and plumbing to accommodate that use.

    Dr. Lynda Chin’s office is 187 square feet and the cost of her furniture was $20,251. This compares with 160 square feet and $15,000 average for a department chair at MD Anderson. Her suite includes a 121-square-foot meeting room and 124 square feet for office space for her assistant.

    This is entirely reasonable for a scientist and leader who both chairs an academic department and serves as scientific director of an institute designed to improve the efficiency and speed of cancer drug development. Dr. Chin is one of the world’s leading experts on cancer genomics, a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies and serves in leadership roles for The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) of the National Institutes of Health and the International Cancer Genome Consortium.

    Regarding our CPRIT incubator grant proposal, it did not bypass scientific review, since no such review was required up front in CPRIT’s request for applications. Our application did receive the required commercialization review. MD Anderson agreed to scientific review after it retrospectively became an issue, and withdrew the application. We expect to reapply if and when CPRIT issues a new request for incubator applications.

    The link below is to the original RFA, now closed. Section 8 covers review procedures.
    http://www.cprit.state.tx.us/images/uploads/rfa_c-12-incu-2_2-wm.pdf

    Many thanks for the opportunity to contribute comments.
    Regards
    Scott Merville
    External Communications The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

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