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.
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.