MD Anderson Bullying Scandal: Top Doc Accused Of 'Mafia-Style Abuse', Plagiarism


                                                                   By Cassidy Morrison

One of America's most prestigious cancer hospitals is embroiled in a bullying scandal that has culminated in staff members requiring emergency mental health treatment.

Insiders have described the culture at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas as 'toxic' and 'abusive', with senior doctors in charge likened to 'the Mafia' who 'tamper' with potentially life-saving research.

So severe is the situation, a top scientist at the center is currently battling a lawsuit over allegations that she plagiarized research conducted at the institution.

There have been staggering incidences of staff maltreatment - including verbal abuse, including threatening statements that have landed people in hospital emergency rooms with panic attacks.

At the center of the scandal is the 'Queen Bee' of the institution, immuno-oncologist Dr Padmanee Sharma, who is a towering figure in the world of immunotherapy research. But behind the scenes she is said to enjoy a reign of terror.

Dr Sharma, 53, - who is married to the high flying Dr James Allison, namesake of the James P. Allison Institute at MD Anderson Cancer Center - is accused of verbally abusing those around her and actively trying to derail fellow scientists' careers.

MD Anderson is consistently ranked number one for cancer care in the US and conducts the most groundbreaking research across a range of oncology specialties to treat even the rarest, most intractible cancers.

The hospital is funded by the federal government, which hands out millions of dollars every year in grants for research, by patients and insurers, and by wealthy philathropists, adding to a yearly revenue of about $10 billion.

The former assistant of Dr Sharma, who worked with her between 2019 and 2023 and asked to remain anonymous, said the abuse began within her first month of working there.

The cruel comments were first delivered by Dr Sharma’s deputy Dr Sumit Subudhi, a fellow oncologist and immunologist, according to the assistant - who asked to be named 'G'.

Her concerns about his harsh words were brushed off; upper management said he’s from New York, he just has a 'brash style'.

But this, according to G, was not brashness but rather hostile, aggressive verbal tirades that disparaged her intelligence and threats that she would soon be out of a job.

Within a few months, G was shifted to work directly under Dr Sharma - and co-workers warned her about the preeminent researcher’s temper and the work environment she cultivated.

G claims she heard one of Dr Sharma's employees had suffered a heart attack linked to the stress of the job, while another nurse practitioner working under Dr Sharma and Dr Subudhi had begun experiencing suicidal thoughts.

In late 2019, shortly before the pandemic sent most support staff away to work remotely, G herself suffered panic attacks that she once mistook for a full-blown heart attack, and she went to the hospital.

G tells of another occasion in which she was asked by Dr Sharma to update the her CV ahead of the doctor receiving a prestigious award. Thinking the document was up to date with Dr Sharma’s latest accomplishments, G made a few changes and sent it off.

But the changes she made were not to Dr Sharma's standards, causing the physician to ‘throw a fit.

G claims she pulled a chair up to her desk and held her ‘hostage’ - preventing her from leaving her desk for hours, not even for bathroom or food breaks.

She is said to have made condescending comments about G’s work ethic, such as saying that if G were her husband’s assistant, she’d be fired by now.

But when they voiced their concerns about Dr Sharma’s actions, upper management brushed them aside, because Dr Sharma is ‘basically untouchable’, G claims.

Dr Sharma did not return requests for comment.

The hospital is also currently in the crosshairs of a contentious legal dispute brought by Dr Jamie Lin, a junior scientist who specializes in cancers involving the kidneys.

She was friends with Dr Sharma and her husband for years before their contentious legal battle began earlier this year.

Dr Lin alleges that Dr Sharma strongarmed her way on to the author byline of consequential research led by Lin, despite Sharma not actually having worked on the paper, and then sabotaged its publication.

Dr Lin was preparing to submit her paper to the journal Cancer Immunology Research in the summer of 2021 on tertiary lymphoid structures, or clumps of immune cells that aggregate in kidney tissue possibly as negative side effect of receiving immunotherapy to treat cancer.

Dr Sharma had been pressuring Dr Lin to add her name to the paper’s abstract as senior corresponding author, a designation that means she would be credited for overseeing the experimentation and receive all inquiries about the study.

She even confronted Dr Lin about it in the middle of Santa Barbara Airport and allegedly threatened to pull Dr Lin’s research funding.

Dr Lin said: 'There definitely is this like mafia feeling to the situation, that if she tells you to do something, you have to do it. And if you don't, then, you know, there will be repercussions.’

At first, Dr Lin agreed. But when she became increasingly uncomfortable with granting the high-profile attribution to Dr Sharma, she told her so, and said she would not include Dr Sharma’s name after all.

Later, Dr Lin and her co-authors filed paperwork to become inventors of the technology outlined in their paper that, if used in the field, would ensure they get some of the proceeds and the recognition. Dr Sharma tried to be included on that too.

Dr Lin said: ‘But when I said you didn't come up with the idea, that's seen as going up against her. And I think the fact someone of my level said this was what might have triggered a lot of what happened thereafter.

'I'm like, a newly minted junior faculty member who's basically saying you didn't come up with that idea.’

Dr Sharma leveraged her influence to claim to the journal that MD Anderson was in the midst of an authorship dispute, which Dr Lin denied, and the paper was placed on hold and is yet to be published.

In a legal response, Dr Sharma alleges that she had been working closely with Dr Lin and fellow researchers, frequently attending Zoom meetings and helping to analyze kidney samples, adding that sequencing TLS genes had previously been a part of her research.

Dr Sharma added that, despite her busy schedule, she took the time to help Dr Lin’s research because she ‘wanted to help Dr. Lin be successful at MDACC and aid her professional growth.’

A later paper by Dr Lin, again focusing on TLS, submitted to Journal of Clinical Investigation Insight was accepted for peer review - a process in which fellow scientists vet the research and spot errors or faulty reasoning.

But on the same day of its publication date, Dr Sharma allegedly emailed editors of that journal and claimed Dr Lin had committed plagiarism by not listing her as senior author.

Dr Lin said: ‘For someone like myself who is in research, that is a deathblow to your research career. I mean, all we have is our integrity that you know you’re doing good research that people will trust, that your data is sound. So when you accuse someone of plagiarism that knocks them off their feet.

‘And if that comes from someone with so much influence, there's no way for me to be able to say that's not true and be able to salvage my reputation.’

Dr Lin said she suffered from the fallout, losing 10 pounds because she couldn’t eat. She couldn’t sleep, had severe anxiety, and felt a sense of constant paranoia ‘thinking about, oh my gosh, does everyone think that I'm a cheater, that I'm a liar?

‘And I just kind of hid, physically and mentally. I wouldn't interact with my colleagues. And even at home, when I mean physically, I would literally find corners in the house, specifically my work room, and just be in my corner, because it just felt safe.’

Dr Lin is riding out the rest of her grant funding from the National Institutes of Health, but with two papers quashed that could have bolstered her research portfolio, she fears that when the money runs out she’ll have nothing to show for it.

She is suing Dr Sharma for slander and defamation and is seeking $5 million in damages. But Dr Sharma, an employee of a government-funded institution, has the might of the state at her back.

Even though the case was filed against Dr Sharma as a private citizen, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is running her defense. He argued that Dr Lin’s case should be made against MD Anderson, not Dr Sharma, and alleges that the latter is immune to any legal challenge.

‘An individual person who got sued as a private citizen, now claims immunity. That in itself is just so…’ Dr Lin trailed off with a chuckle.

‘It means a lot to me, because it's not just my career at stake, but what it means for a future in research. And when people see this, what are they going to say or think?’

MD Anderson said in a statement it ‘does not comment on internal employee matters or pending litigation.

‘We can share that the institution has established processes for addressing concerns filed by any MD Anderson employee.

'Upon receiving a concern, the institution immediately initiates its review process. In some cases, an external review may be required. Upon completion of each review, the institution addresses the findings and closes the matter.’


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