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Moffitt Cancer Center shakeup: CEO and others resign over China ties

The actions come amid a widening federal investigation of foreign attempts to take advantage of U.S.-backed medical research.

Dr. Alan List, the CEO and president of H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute, resigned under pressure Wednesday amid a controversy that linked him and others at the hospital to possible exploitation of American-funded research by China.

List was joined by Thomas Sellers, a vice president and director at Moffitt, and four of the cancer center’s researchers, who also resigned abruptly. The departures come during a time of heightened scrutiny by federal agencies of foreign attempts to take advantage of American-backed medical research. Among the investigating agencies is the National Institutes of Health, one of the largest funding sources for medical research in the world.

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Timothy Adams, Moffitt’s board chairman, will assume responsibilities for operating the center while a national CEO search is underway.

Moffitt’s internal compliance office launched an internal investigation into the hospital’s partnership with any China research arms and found several “compliance violations,” officials said. Most were linked to Moffitt employees’ personal involvement in China’s “Thousand Talents” program, which is designed to recruit researchers and other experts from American and European universities and companies.

List, Sellers and others were found to have violated conflict of interest rules through their work in China. The center did not elaborate.

“About last summer, the NIH began warning institutions to be on alert,” Adams said. “Our compliance team spent countless hours reviewing the findings of the investigation in this unfortunate circumstance. I believe we took the appropriate action.”

The center’s namesake, former Florida House Speaker H. Lee Moffitt, also weighed in Wednesday. “This great institution did its job," he said in a statement. “We listened to the warnings from NIH, conducted a proactive review, and took strong action when it was needed.”

The center shared the preliminary findings of its review with the federal government and is continuing to investigate. The Washington Post reported in July that the FBI is among the federal agencies working to tighten enforcement of disclosure rules regarding medical research funding and grant proposals, which can contain confidential information.

Officials said there is no indication that Moffitt research was compromised or that patient care has been affected.

Moffitt is also reviewing its 12-year research and education partnership with the Tianjin Medical University Cancer Institute and Hospital, a 2,400-bed hospital outside of Beijing. Last year, Moffitt also celebrated five years of collaboration with China’s International Personalized Cancer Center. Both relationships gave the Tampa-based cancer center a physical presence in China.

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Since 2008, Moffitt and Tianjin have conducted joint research projects. Graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, physician scientists and research nurses from Tianjin came to Moffitt from training, according a news release from 2018. The allure, the release said, is that Tianjin is located in a “free trade zone” that expedited approvals for clinical trials.

Moffitt was established in 1981 by the Florida Legislature and is the only National Cancer Institute-designated “comprehensive cancer center” in Florida.   [Courtesy of Moffitt Cancer Center]
Moffitt was established in 1981 by the Florida Legislature and is the only National Cancer Institute-designated “comprehensive cancer center” in Florida. [Courtesy of Moffitt Cancer Center]

In 2016, List received the Hai River award while on a visit to China for the collaboration.

This “open exchange of ideas” between countries was once encouraged by the U.S. government, Moffitt officials said. But the Trump administration has become worried that foreign interests, especially China, are targeting American academic and medical centers to copy research and technology projects and steal intellectual property.

“We started that relationship at a time when foreign policy was about bringing China into the fold of the rest of the world,” Adams said. “We looked at that as a great opportunity to collaborate. Cancer knows no borders.”

Earlier this year, three scientists from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston were fired amid similar concerns. NIH investigation reports tied these researchers to institutions in China, and accused them of failing to disclose international collaborators. Others were fired at Emory University in Atlanta for similar allegations.

Federal officials have said that some scientists have been involved in "shadow laboratories” where American-funded research was being conducted in China instead of the United States.

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List has been the CEO and president of Moffitt since 2012. Aside from his executive roles with the cancer hospital, he is still a practicing physician. He’s known for his work in treating myelodysplastic syndromes and acute myeloid leukemia, cancers that start in bone marrow.

List was leading a push to expand the Moffitt campus across Tampa Bay, and had met with state lawmakers earlier this year to secure financial support. Adams said that project remains a top priority.

“The patient need remains the same. The need to cure this terrible disease remains the same,” Adams said. “I expect we will not miss a beat.”

Before becoming CEO, List held a variety of roles at Mofffit, including the executive vice president and physician-in-chief and chief of the malignant hematology division. He came to Moffitt in 2003 after working as a professor of medicine at the University of Arizona, Tuscon. There, he also worked as the director of the leukemia and blood and marrow transplant program and the director of the division translational/clinical research program.

List graduated with a medical degree in 1980 from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He completed an internship and residency in internal medicine at the Good Samaritan Medical Center in Phoenix. He also held fellowships in hematology and medical oncology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.

He could not immediately be reached for comment.