Superstar scientist Josef Penninger decided to leave Canada because he was angered and depressed by allegations circulating through the medical research community that his work was flawed and could not be replicated by other scientists.
The brilliant young immunologist is returning to his native Austria even though the head of the hospital where he works pledged to write to Canada's leading research institutes and research financing agencies saying his scientific investigation is beyond reproach.
Tom Closson, the president of University Health Network in Toronto, Canada's largest teaching and research hospital, has also agreed to write letters to Dr. Penninger's research students and other members of his laboratory apologizing for any damage to their reputations from the controversy.
Dr. Penninger, 37, has been celebrated as the Wayne Gretsky of science for discoveries over the past seven years pointing the way to eventual cures for cancers, heart disease and osteoporosis, and unravelling the genetic mysteries of pain.
Dr. Penninger announced at the end of last year that he was going back to Austria to direct his own molecular biotechnology laboratory.
But he told no one beyond a small circle of friends that he was prodded to go by what he felt was an assault on his reputation against which neither the UHN nor the University of Toronto faculty of medicine was defending him. He is an associate professor in the university's department of medical biophysics.
Colleagues said he is also upset by a toxic relationship he had with his boss and former mentor, Tak Mak, 55, director of the Amgen Research Institute, which operated in UHN.
The written commitment given by Mr. Closson -- which was signed by Dr. Penninger as well as Dr. Mak -- came to light late this week as copies began circulating through Toronto's medical research community. It apparently was the result of a mediation process offered by Mr. Closson.
It commits U of T medical dean David Naylor to write a letter similar to those Mr. Closson will write to the heads of research funding institutes extolling Dr. Penninger's scientific accomplishments. Dr. Naylor's letter would also announce that Dr. Penninger, who will not leave Toronto until the end of next year, has been made a full professor.
Dr. Mak declined to comment on the agreement or the allegations against Dr. Penninger. Asked if his relationship with Dr. Penninger was bad, he said: "No."
Dr. Penninger also refused to comment on the agreement or explain its context.
But he did say: "It must be understood that the reputation of researchers is the most important thing [to them] something I and the people associated with me have worked for their whole lives. That such a reputation is attacked based on false accusations is simply not acceptable.
"Our research was seriously impaired. This has seriously affected my scientific work and my joy and dedication to do research. I would go to a meeting, and an editor of Nature [one of the most important research journals]would ask me what's going on [regarding the allegations]
"Finally, last spring, I had enough. A really great offer came from Vienna. . . . I'd had many offers over the years.
"This has also massively affected my family life since we have been driven out of town. My wife has to give up her newly acquired business. We have to relocate our children." Dr. Penninger's wife is Canadian.
Mr. Closson was not in Toronto yesterday and could not be reached.
Dr. Naylor said Dr. Penninger is an outstanding young scientist who has been exonerated "and I wish he would stay. . . . I don't think it is useful for me to comment on the source of the allegations any more than I don't think it's useful for me to comment on their substance."
He said it is one of the "difficult facets of academic life" that "we're forced to maintain an environment where allegations are taken seriously."
Dr. Penninger's name has appeared on more than 100 papers, many of them published in the gold-standard journals of scientific research: Blood, Nature, Cell and Science.
Television documentaries about his work have been broadcast on CBC and the BBC. He has been profiled in Esquire magazine. He has been featured on a CITY-TV series on great thinkers.
In Austria he will direct a laboratory being built for him by the government and reportedly funded by $30-million.
Dr. Penninger's departure coincides with the end of the once-golden Amgen Research Institute in Toronto.
In 1993, Dr. Mak -- a renowned medical researcher who cloned the gene that enables the immune system's T-cells to lock on to their targets -- brought together California-based bio-tech giant Amgen Inc., University Health Network and the university in an academic-industrial partnership that was the envy of researchers across the country.
Dr. Mak created a research institute that was to be financed by Amgen at $10-million annually until 2008, located in the heart of Toronto's medical teaching and research complex and allied with the university's faculty of medicine.
Six hundred applicants applied for the initial six scientist jobs. Dr. Penninger, a postdoctoral student in Dr. Mak's lab, was one of them. Dr. Mak was quoted as saying: "I'm not looking for people who dot i's and cross t's. I need people who will hit grand slams."
Only one of the initial scientists is still in the lab.
The others would not talk to The Globe and Mail about their experience.
Amgen decided last year it no longer wanted to finance basic research in Toronto. Yesterday, the lab became part of the Ontario Cancer Institute.