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?

Catalona has drawn on the bank in studies aimed at pinpointing causes of prostate cancer. His work in St. Louis resulted in scores of articles in medical journals publicized by Washington University. "Research-ers Home In on a Gene That Could Play a Major Role in Prostate Cancer," trumpeted a press release in 2000, when Catalona an-nounced he'd found a link between prostate cancer and a specific chromosome.

By then, the doctor's career at Washington University was drawing to a close.

According to Catalona, the beginning of the end came in 1998, when Dr. Timothy Eberlein, chief of surgery at Washington University and director of the Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center (which is run by the university and Barnes-Jewish Hospital), arrived in St. Louis from Harvard. Within a year of Eberlein's arrival, Catalona was replaced as head of urology at the medical school. One of world's top urologists was no longer top dog at his own university.

Mark Poutenis
Mark Poutenis

"You have a change in administration, and that change leads to an apparent lack of respect for everything that you've done," Piche explains. "You find that you're losing financial support through the university, you're losing office space, you're losing staff to the point where it's interfering with your research and what you're doing. It doesn't take long to figure out you're not wanted."

None of this, Piche adds, is part of the legal case, and he won't go into detail about conflicts between Catalona and his superiors at the medical school. "Dr. Catalona doesn't want to go down that line -- what was done to him," the attorney says. "He has the ability to stand on his own."

Eberlein directed inquiries to the medical school's media-relations office. "Dr. Eberlein had let Dr. Catalona know he was welcome to remain here and conduct his research," says spokesman Don Clayton in an e-mailed response to questions from the Riverfront Times. "So did Dean [William] Peck."

Joni Westerhouse, another medical school spokeswoman, says personalities are irrelevant. "We're not viewing this as a personal war," Westerhouse says. "It's all about tissue."

The tissue tug-of-war broke out two years ago, when Catalona was on the verge of leaving for the University of Virginia.

Dr. Robert Carey, dean of the University of Virginia School of Medicine at the time, says Virginia wanted a big name. In return, Catalona would return to a position of prestige at a respected academic medical center.

"He's among the top five names in prostate cancer in the country," Carey says. "We have an outstanding urology department, but we don't have what you would call a national leader in prostate disease on our faculty. Dr. Catalona would have answered that. Particularly on the clinical side, Dr. Catalona's name carried a lot of weight. His cadre of patients from all over the country was a big asset. We thought, also, he could help us with some of the logistics of patient care, because he does it so smoothly and so effectively. I certainly think his reputation is outstanding, so that reputation might spill over into some other areas, some other programs, some other opportunities."

Virginia came so close to landing Catalona that the medical school issued a press release in 2001 announcing that the doctor had been named to lead the school's Mellon Prostate Cancer Research Institute. Washington University also issued a press release stating that the doctor would be "pursuing other opportunities and challenges."

But the deal fell through. In court papers, Catalona alleges that Peck (who stepped down as dean of the Washington University medical school this past June) agreed to let the specimen bank move with Catalona. Only when Eberlein ordered otherwise did the transfer hit a stone wall, the doctor claims.

It wasn't that simple, counters Clayton.

"In an attempt to resolve the dispute without resorting to the courts and in a way that would allow research to continue at both institutions, we and UVA eventually reached a mutually acceptable split of the repository," the Washington University spokesman writes in an e-mailed response to the RFT. "We compromised. However, splitting the repository was unacceptable to Dr. Catalona and the deal fell apart. Now, Dr. Catalona seeks to have it all transferred to his personal authority."

Dividing the tissue bank was impractical, Piche argues. "How do you divide this stuff?" Catalona's lawyer asks. "These things are frozen."

Once the Virginia deal disintegrated, Washington University "seized" the samples and demanded that Catalona surrender donor lists and databases, the doctor claims in court documents. Previously, he had been the collection's curator and gatekeeper.

According to its lawsuit against Catalona, the university established a committee to decide who should have access to the specimens. The aim, says Clayton, was to make the bank open to researchers nationwide, including Catalona. "We're more than willing to receive proposals from Dr. Catalona," Clayton says. "We want to preserve access to the resource. Keeping it available for research is our goal."

That's Catalona's aim, too, according to his attorney, who says the doctor has shared the repository with other researchers and would continue to do so. "He has continually engaged in collaborative ventures with other people in the use of the samples," Piche says. "And I don't think he's ever turned down a viable research project that would be useful in developing the body of knowledge."

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