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Fraud debate aired on Capitol Hill.

Fraud debate aired on Capitol Hill

In two days of heated testimony, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the powerful chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, grilled a cast of witnesses including Nobel laureate David Baltimore, a bevy of Secret Service agents and Margot O'Toole, the postdoctoral student who triggered the most recent debate in the nation's capital regarding scientific fraud and misconduct.

The drama was played out May 4 and May 9 in the Rayburn House Office Building with a standing-room-only crowd of scientists, administrators, government officials, lobbyists and journalists. At the center of the uproar: an April 25, 1986 scientific paper published in CELL by a team of researchers led by Thereza Imanishi-Kari, formerly with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and now at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston. The team included Baltimore, director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass. The CELL paper claimed that foreign genes inserted into immune-system cells in mice generally are not expressed but instead affect production of antibodies directed by the animal's own genes.

It is this very conclusion that O'Toole continues to question. O'Toole, who worked in Imanishi-Kari's MIT laboratory, first raised objections to the CELL paper in May 1986 when she stumbled onto data pertaining to a crucial portion of the experiment described in CELL. "An examination of these records convinced me that the findings had been presented in a misleading fashion, and that a central claim of the paper might not be supported by experimental evidence," O'Toole told the subcommittee. She never accused Imanishi-Kari of fraud.

Dingell's staff scheduled the latest round of hearings to air forensic evidence suggesting that laboratory pages supposedly written in 1984 and 1985 were actually prepared in 1986--after the CELL report appeared. John W. Hargett of the Secret Service testified that an analysis of Imanishi-Kari's laboratory notebooks showed that more than a dozen pages contained altered dates.

Imanishi-Kari steadfastly denied any implication that she had gone back and altered her lab books. "I do keep my notes in what seems to others a messy condition. But I know my notes. I know where they are and how to read them -- that's what is important," she told the subcommittee, adding she had strong personal motives to be accurate. The CELL paper's results may help scientists understand lupus erythematosus, a disorder caused by a malfunctioning immune system. "Mr. Chairman, I have lupus. My sister died from lupus," Imanishi-Kari testified, noting that manipulated data could thwart efforts to find a cure for the disease.

Despite such testimony, nagging questions remain. For example, at least one finding obtained by a scientist working under Imanishi-Kari was never entered in a notebook but was recorded directly on a chart published in the CELL report. In addition, Imanishi-Kari acknowledges she "reorganized" her notebooks after questions about the report arose.

"These revelations of unorthodox data-handling practices have prompted us to initiate a detailed audit," testified National Institutes of Health Director James B. Wyngaarden. NIH recently reopened its investigation of the case after learning of the Secret Service analysis (SN: 5/6/89, p.278). NIH had appointed a three-member panel of scientists to scrutinize O'Toole's complaint. Their report, issued in February, cleared Baltimore and colleagues of fraud but did find "significant errors of misstatement and omiission" in the CELL report.

The hearing underscored another disturbing piece of evidence: a Sept. 9, 1986 letter written by Baltimore. "The evidence that the Bet-1 antibody [the experiment's key reagent] doesn't do as described in the paper is clear," Baltimore wrote to Herman Eisen, an MIT scientist investigating some of O'Toole's concerns. "Thereza's statement to you that she knew it all the time is a remarkable admission of guilt."

Baltimore says he wrote the letter in haste after learning Imanishi-Kari had told Eisen Bet-1 didn't work properly -- a misunderstanding that was cleared up several days later. Imanishi-Kari, a Brazilian citizen who speaks several languages, "has difficulty communicating in English, as the history of this controversy painfully shows," Baltimore says.

The significance of the case goes well beyond the CELL paper, striking at the heart of how institutions respond to allegations of scientific error. On the one hand, Baltimore and his supporters decry congressional attempts to put a choker on the individual pursuit of scientific knowledge. Yet Dingell and other subcommittee members remain wary of the scientific community's ability and willingness to police itself.

Moreover, Dingell and a few members of the scientific community say they remain concerned about the fate of scientists -- especially junior researchers such as O'Toole -- who raise questions about scientific accuracy. O'Toole testified she has suffered personally from the controversy: "I was left without a recommendation. I was left without a job." Wyngaarden says he believes O'Toole's career was damanged simply because she pursued her convictions. The scientific community, he adds, must allow individuals to speak out.
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Title Annotation:John Dingell vs David Baltimore
Author:Fackelmann, K.A.
Publication:Science News
Date:May 13, 1989
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