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MD Anderson has hired away 55 scientists from Dana-Farber

Fifty-five scientists from the Belfer Institute for Applied Cancer Science at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute are moving to a new cancer institute at MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas, Carrie Feibel of Houston Public Radio, reports this morning in partnership with Kaiser Health News.

The move comes after Dr. Ron DePinho, who was the founding director of the Belfer Institute, was chosen as president of MD Anderson in May.

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Feibel reports that the recruits include 28 researchers, along with 27 post-doctoral and PhD students. The researchers will work under Dr. Lynda Chin, DePinho’s wife who also came from Dana-Farber and who will be the scientific director of the new Institute for Applied Cancer Science.

The 55 scientists make up less than half of the Belfer staff, but much of the leadership there is moving to the Texas site, Feibel writes.

Dr. Barrett Rollins, chief scientific officer at Dana-Farber, said that over the past few months, the Belfer Institute has been hiring and has almost filled the 28 positions that have opened up.

“From the moment they started to go, we’ve been hiring,” Rollins said.

There are also two new co-directors leading the Belfer Institute and its 40 scientists: Dr. Pasi Janne and Dr. Kwok Wong, both thoracic oncologists.

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“Honestly, we were a little surprised at the number of people who left Belfer and we should have anticipated that, because Belfer is so tightly identified with Ron and Lynda,” Rollins said. He said that the departures of post-doctoral researchers and graduate student were expected, because those scientists worked in DePinho’s and Chin’s large laboratories. Rollins added that hiring to replace vacated positions has been easy, and the Belfer Institute will continue on, with its emphasis on translating basic research into new therapies. It continues to be supported through two large collaborative partnerships with Merck & Co. and Sanofi-Aventis.

Governor Rick Perry took the opportunity to herald his state’s attractions. Here’s an excerpt from Feibel’s story:

As if to underscore what could be cast as a victory over his presidential rival Mitt Romney, Governor Rick Perry took time out from his campaign to attend the official announcement in Houston. He said nothing overtly political, but emphasized that Texas was setting itself up to compete with traditional bio-tech hubs like, well, Boston.

Perry said: “We’re creating a culture that will help ensure that great ideas that are born in Texas will stay in Texas. From the laboratory to the marketplace. And then we will export them around the world.”

But beyond needling Bay Staters, what does MD Anderson accomplish by doing this? Well, for years, cancer docs have complained about a slowdown in the development of new oncology drugs.

“Pharmaceutical companies have downsized their internal research programs,” DePinho said. “Biotechnology companies, which serve as the pipeline from academia to large pharma, are under significant stress due to the economic crisis.”

Now MD Anderson will be doing more of what pharmaceutical and biotech companies used to do — conducting basic research to find new cancer drugs and then shepherding the drugs through the early stages of testing, DePinho said.

Carolyn Y. Johnson contributed to this story. Chelsea Conaboy can be reached at cconaboy@boston.com. Follow her on Twitter @cconaboy.

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