Gland of Opportunity

Dr. William J. Catalona built an unrivaled repository of blood and tissue samples. Washington University wants to keep it. Now a judge will decide: Who owns the prostates?

The Catalona Collection sounds like a line of designer clothes, or perhaps an assortment of fine fragrances. Maybe a stash of Spanish paintings.

It is anything but.

The Catalona Collection is a repository of blood and tissue samples taken from some 10,000 prostate-cancer patients and their relatives. The specimens sit in a dozen-plus freezers at the Washington University School of Medicine, where administrators have a less romantic name for one of the largest such banks in the world. They call it the GU (short for genito-urinary) Biorepository. It may hold the key to a cure, or at least improved treatment, for a disease that's the second-biggest cause of cancer deaths in U.S. men. As such, it may be worth millions of dollars. And the university wants to keep it.

Mark Poutenis
Mark Poutenis

Dr. William J. Catalona, the collection's former curator, says the university has no right to the samples he began gathering in the 1980s. After 26 years in St. Louis, Catalona left Washington University in February, convinced that he was no longer wanted by the institution that once held him up as a genius. He's now director of the clinical prostate cancer program at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center at Northwestern University, just outside Chicago. He says the proper name for the samples is the Catalona Collection, and he wants them back.

Washington University sued Catalona in August, asking a federal judge to settle the ownership question. In October, Catalona countersued, requesting a jury trial. Not only do donors want him to have their tissues, the doctor says, but the law requires it. Besides hiring some of the best legal talent in St. Louis, both sides have brought in attorneys from outside Missouri. That this has turned into a big-ass case is no exaggeration.

Behind the bickering are thousands of men who've undergone surgery and untold thousands yet to be diagnosed whose fates may hinge on who wins this court battle. The case is the latest in a series of disputes throughout the United States over ownership of human body parts used in research, and the ramifications could be felt in laboratories across the nation.

"I think the issue is: Who owns your DNA?" says Gregory Piche (pronounced pee-SHAY), one of Catalona's lawyers. He accuses Washington University of less-than-noble motives.

"Our belief is it's all about money," Piche says.

William J. Catalona has long been a urologist to the stars. His patients include Joe Torre, manager of the New York Yankees, and Cardinals great Stan Musial. Former U.S. Senator Robert Dole is an honorary trustee of the Chesterfield-based Urological Research Foundation (URF), which has Catalona as its medical director and as its Web address. The nonprofit foundation has raised millions of dollars for prostate-cancer research, and some has gone to fund Catalona's work.

Anthony Sansone Sr., URF president and one of the region's most prominent real estate developers, says he would have traveled anywhere to be cured by Catalona when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer thirteen years ago. Even though he's one of the wealthiest men in St. Louis, Sansone says Catalona didn't treat him like a celebrity. He says he was put on a waiting list like everyone else. The doctor's bedside manner, Sansone says, equals his skill as a surgeon.

"They come from all over the world for this man to operate on them," Sansone says. "I thoroughly enjoyed the gentleman. He had a great deal of compassion. As far as I was concerned, he couldn't have made me feel more at ease."

Citing advice from his attorneys, Catalona declined to be interviewed for this story. But his praises have been sung all the way to Congress. "Even though he practices medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, he mailed to us videotapes and pamphlets, as well as calling Bob on the telephone several times," Carol L. Watson, wife of former Houston Astros baseball star Bob Watson, told the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging in 1997. "We were both very well informed about the possibilities of incontinency and impotency and about the time, energy and effort on both of our parts that aftercare would encompass."

Catalona specializes in delicate operations that remove diseased prostates while preserving nerve bundles that surround the walnut-size gland, which produces seminal fluid. The tiny nerves control erections, meaning that a scalpel that wanders a millimeter or two can result in impotence. Nerve-sparing surgery, which costs as much as $30,000, is considerably more expensive than the standard operation that removes the prostate and often damages nerves. But men who undergo the painstaking procedure say the extra money is worth it, given that some experts say impotence rates are as high as 90 percent in men who undergo the less-precise operation. Catalona, who has performed more than 3,600 nerve-sparing surgeries, claims nearly 80 percent of his patients retain their ability to achieve an erection. Nerve-sparing surgery is also less likely to result in incontinence, another common side effect of prostate removal.

Besides being a top surgeon, Catalona is one of the premier prostate-cancer scientists on the planet. He's best known for demonstrating that prostate cancer may be detected with a blood test. The test measures prostate-specific antigen, or PSA, an enzyme produced by the prostate that, in theory, should only be present in semen. In reality, some finds its way into the bloodstream, although experts can't say exactly how or why. High PSA levels in blood are a red flag for cancer, according to a landmark study Catalona published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1991.

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