Dr. Kevin Murphy, an oncologist and founder of personalized TMS companies Mindset and PeakLogic, sits for a photo at the UCSD Center for Neuromodulation on Dec. 6, 2019. (Brad Racino/inewsource)

Why this matters

inewsource’s investigation into experimental brain treatments by a former UC San Diego oncologist, Dr. Kevin Murphy, is now part of a massive six-week trial between the doctor and the university.

Nearly every detail of the bitter conflict is under debate, but one point is hard to dispute: A San Diego doctor’s life has been upended since he chose to take on his $47 billion employer.

Dr. Kevin Murphy, a former department vice chair and oncologist at UC San Diego, has alleged for the past seven years that the University of California system misused a $10 million fund meant for his research. Once he spoke out about what happened, he claims, top officials led a campaign against him that has only escalated over time.

The doctor’s 2020 whistleblower retaliation lawsuit against the UC system is now in front of a jury, which will decide whether his downfall was out of his control or one of his own making.

Monday marked the end of Murphy’s first, but possibly not the last, time on the witness stand. He testified in San Diego Superior Court that his clash with the institution derailed his career path, his finances, his personal relationships and his companies, which support his controversial and unproven brain stimulation treatments.

His case is an uphill battle. The UC system, which generates billions of dollars in annual revenue, hired a team of attorneys to defend the institution and bring its own lawsuit against Murphy, claiming the doctor committed fraud and misused university funds for his personal gain.

The two lawsuits have been combined into one colossal six-week trial, with each side seeking millions of dollars.

During his six days of testimony, a beleaguered Murphy spoke softly in front of the jury — a contrast to the eager and defiant attitude he held when inewsource first interviewed him for a 2020 investigative series into his brain treatments and conflicts with UCSD.

The 55-year-old testified he had finally paid off his student loans and his private companies were just gaining traction when UC San Diego suddenly declined to renew his employee contract in 2020.

“I was just getting to the height of my career when this all went down,” Murphy said. 

The doctor was called to the stand by his own attorneys to defend his actions and recount the hardship he says he has undergone because of UCSD officials. He could be forced to testify again if UCSD’s attorneys wish to call him when they present their own case.

Dr. Kevin Murphy shields his face while entering the Hall of Justice in San Diego, June 21, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Murphy told the jury that he lost his $600,000 salary while putting two children through college, and he has not been able to pursue another job in radiation oncology because of the university’s “character assassination.”

Murphy, a Gulf War engineer-turned-oncologist, said the university’s claims against him are false but have caused far-reaching damage to his reputation.

An inewsource article about a UC investigation into his actions was read widely among his colleagues, military personnel and the veterans community, the doctor said, causing longtime supporters to turn away from him.

When Murphy went to an orphanage in Delhi, India, a priest pulled out a copy of the article, he said.

“I thought it was crazy that it would go to that extent,” the doctor told the jury. “I was just shocked by that.”

The San Carlos native worked in the radiation oncology department at UCSD for 15 years. On the witness stand, he recounted shepherding the small department into a profitable and admirable faction of the university. The doctor also credited himself with catching more than 200 breast cancer tumors through early screening interventions and founding the university’s advanced radiosurgery program to treat brain tumors.

When questioned by his attorneys, Murphy explained that the fallout from the UCSD conflict has affected him professionally and financially. He was forced to sell assets from his private medical practice, he said, and dried up about 10% to 15% of his retirement funds to cover personal expenses after losing his job.

The ordeal has also impacted him on a personal level, he told the jury. It caused him to gain weight and lose sleep, and it led to resentment from his wife, a current UCSD administrator, he said.

Other parts of Murphy’s personal life were divulged during the UC system’s cross-examination over the repeated objections of his attorneys. He was questioned in detail about other sources of stress he has recently faced, including lawsuits against his personal businesses and a past romantic relationship.

The university’s attorneys attempted to downplay how the conflict has affected Murphy. The doctor acknowledged during questioning that he has not tried to look for another oncology position since leaving UCSD and instead is investing time into advancing his brain stimulation treatments.

He also admitted that he is still able to rely on his wife’s $300,000 annual income to cover many personal expenses.

But Murphy insisted that the powers at the University of California were responsible for immeasurable hardship in his life. Even defending himself in court has been a burden for him, he said, costing more than $600,000 in legal fees so far.

“Do you consider yourself an optimist?” Murphy’s attorney asked him during a long day on the witness stand.

Yes, Murphy answered, noting his outlook has changed since taking on the forces in the UC system.

Now, he said, “I question humanity.”

Brain treatments in court

On his first day of testimony, Murphy stood up and rolled a large, white machine with knobs over to the jury box. He powered it on, eliciting a high-pitch noise from the contraption.

“This is what anxiety sounds like,” he said.

The doctor turned a dial, and the tone dropped to a low resonance.

“When you’re sleeping, you’re down here.”

The part of a Magventure TMS machine that allows the treatment to be customized is pictured in the UCSD Center for Neuromodulation on Dec. 6, 2019. (Brad Racino/inewsource)

The machine featured in Murphy’s demonstration stimulates the brain with electromagnetic currents. It’s highly effective in treating depression, anxiety, migraines and obsessive compulsive disorder, and more research is underway to explore its benefits for other conditions.

Murphy’s innovation, he explained to the jury, is that he records a patient’s brain activity, runs it through an algorithm and uses the results to adjust the settings on the brain stimulation machine. This way, he said, he can offer each patient a personalized treatment.

The doctor has long maintained that his approach, known as PrTMS, is more beneficial than existing treatment options for a wide variety of ailments, including post-traumatic stress, cerebral palsy, concussions and autism.

“We’re getting better responses,” Murphy told the jury.

Murphy made such an impression with his treatments, he testified, that one of his patients gave him $10 million to study PrTMS in clinical trials.

That large donation is what brought UCSD and Murphy to the courtroom. 

While Murphy claims the money could be used at his discretion and his research projects were thwarted by administrators, UCSD argues Murphy violated university policies and spent the money to benefit his personal businesses.

The doctor did not shy away from describing the benefits of his work on the witness stand, at one point testifying that his medical treatment helped a quadriplegic person regain sensation in his limbs.

But by Murphy’s own admission, no peer-reviewed research has been published to date supporting his claims about PrTMS. The doctor testified that a retrospective study on PrTMS patients will be published shortly in the journal Heliyon, and other research projects are ongoing.

A spokesperson for Heliyon confirmed that a paper on PrTMS will likely publish “in the next few weeks.”

Since 2021, Murphy and his colleagues have posted several retrospective reviews about PrTMS online, highlighting improved symptoms among clients with post-traumatic stress, concussions and sleep issues. The reviews do not examine whether PrTMS is more effective than other existing treatment options.

Murphy testified that a research project will be conducted with U.S. Special Operations Command to study the effectiveness of PrTMS in treating chronic pain and opioid addiction at a military medical center. Spokespeople for the military branch did not elaborate.

“It would be inappropriate for us to comment on what may or may not have been said during testimony reportedly given in an ongoing civil trial,” spokesperson Kevin McGraw said. “Currently, there is not an exact timeline established for a study Walter Reed National Military Medical Center is going to conduct for U.S. Special Operations Command.”

Despite losing his job at the university, Murphy remains the Chief Executive Officer of PeakLogic, the company designing the PrTMS algorithm. His goal, he said, is approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

Murphy told the jury he doesn’t regret coming forward with complaints about UCSD, even though it has caused setbacks for him and his businesses.

“I did the right thing and would do it again,” he said.

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Jill Castellano is an investigative data coordinator for inewsource. When she's not deep in a spreadsheet or holed up reporting and writing her next story, she's probably hiking, running or rock climbing. She also loves playing board games and discussing the latest chapters with her book club. Jill...