PARIS--The head of France's premier medical research agency, INSERM, has resigned amid allegations of a conflict of interest involving a company he set up with his wife. In a statement released on Monday, Christian Bréchot, 55, said he wanted to explore other career options and have his hands free to defend himself in the affair.
Bréchot and his wife, Patrizia Paterlini, are fighting a battle with Metagenex, a company they founded in 2001 to commercialize ISET, a technique to detect cancer cells or diagnose fetal abnormalities using blood samples. ISET was developed by Paterlini while she worked in Bréchot's lab; Bréchot divested himself from Metagenex when he took the top job at INSERM, but Paterlini and the couple's children still own 44% of its shares.
The problems, which have led to multiple complicated lawsuits, started in 2006, after Paterlini helped bring in a new director, David Znaty. Bréchot and Paterlini charge that he is rushing ISET to market without proper clinical validation; to prevent this from happening, Bréchot has refused to license crucial patents from INSERM to the company. Znaty has accused the couple of wanting to retake control of the company and says Bréchot has a conflict of interest (Science, 3 August, p. 585).
Bréchot's resignation comes as a joint inquiry by inspectors from the French research and health ministries is drawing to a close; their findings have not been made public, but Bréchot has seen a preliminary report. Bréchot says he has not been accused of wrongdoing and denies that he was pressured to step down by the government. He concedes that he had "strong discussions about the timing" of his departure. According to a brief statement issued on Monday by research minister Valérie Pécresse, Bréchot's decision is "in INSERM's best interest."
Paterlini had asked INSERM's own ethical committee and France's National Consultative Ethics Committee for Health and Life Sciences (CCNE) to look into the issue as well. Both issued reports concluding there should be tighter regulation of diagnostic tests, but both declined to rule on the fight over ISET. The panels didn't have the investigative powers to do so, and their job is to make general recommendations on ethics, says immunologist Jean-Claude Ameisen of the Université Paris-VII, who chairs the INSERM ethical committee and is a CCNE member.
Still, Ameisen says Bréchot might have done better to recuse himself from the issue. He praises Bréchot's 7-year track record at INSERM's helm, saying he brought "good ideas" and "new dynamism." For instance, a new program called Avenir, which allows talented young scientists to start their own research group, was a refreshing departure from the lab's traditional structure, says Ameisen.