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St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital has filed suit against Penn’s Board of Trustees in Tennessee, where the two had been collaborating on a research project.

The civil suit, filed in a United States district court on July 11, claims that Penn researchers broke the conditions of the agreement drawn between the two parties in 2003 and 2007. A research team led by Medical School professor Carl June published findings in The New England Journal of Medicine and Science Translational Medicine in August 2011, allegedly without crediting St. Jude.

“We are asking that the University of Pennsylvania honor its agreements related to its use of a critical innovation developed at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and provided freely to Penn,” said St. Jude in an official statement, “under conditions that it has not honored, which involves the use of a molecular receptor made by a St. Jude researcher.”

An official statement by the University expressed disappointment that St. Jude chose to take “such an aggressive step.”

“It seems like the main thrust is that [St. Jude] wants credit,” Washington and Lee University Law School professor Christopher Seaman said. “Attribution is hugely important in the scientific community.”

The team had been researching cures to leukemia. Martin Carroll, a professor of medicine at Penn, explained the body naturally has T-cells that attack foreign invaders. A cancer patient’s T-cells, however, “do not respond to the tumor.”

“What June’s group has done is focus on the question of how to rev up a patient’s own T-cells to attack their own tumor,” Carroll said. While the knowledge that the group was working with had been around for at least a decade, he said, no one had had success with it so far.

The University’s official statement called the cancer treatment “promising.”

June declined to comment, as the matter is under litigation.

The lawsuit also mentions that Kleiner Perkins, a prominent venture capital firm, contacted St. Jude to inquire about its ownership over the research.

“St. Jude alleged Penn is discussing commercializing this,” Seaman said. “They are claiming that would violate the agreement they had with Penn.”

He added that St. Jude also wanted whomever Penn might have told about the research to enter into a similar agreement with them that they had with Penn, and for Penn to stop any commercialization of the product.

“The excitement about this is that they … came up with a construct that is effective in delivering the attack signal within the T-cells,” Carroll said. Preliminary testing went relatively well, although there were some side effects.

Penn researchers have also filed a patent for a portion of the materials. According to Seaman, St. Jude has not claimed ownership of the potential patent in the complaint they filed.

Seaman added such complaints between private institutions and universities that collaborate on research are not uncommon. What is interesting about the case, he said, is St. Jude is not ending the research contract with Penn.

“There’s no attempt to reclaim whatever they’ve given Penn researchers,” he said. “That’s noteworthy.”

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