A NOTED RESEARCHER'S DISPUTED WORK LANDS IN CONGRESS
Author: By Judy Foreman, Globe Staff
A PUBLISHED CORRECTION HAS BEEN ADDED TO THIS STORY.
CLARIFICATION: The combination of the headline, a picture and the structure
of the accompanying story on Page 3 yesterday may have given the impression
that the biologist David Baltimore was solely responsible for a 1986 research
paper whose accuracy is the subject of congressional hearings this week. In
fact, as the story stated, Baltimore wrote only a portion of the paper and the
lead author was another scientist.
Biologist David Baltimore won a Nobel prize in medicine for his genetic
work at 37, became head of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in
Cambridge at 44 and now, at 50, enjoys a broadbased respect that is rare in
the competitive world of science.
So why, then, are two congressional subcommittees putting him on the hot
seat -- metaphorically, at least -- tomorrow and Tuesday in Washington?
And why is the career of a young scientist, a postdoctoral trainee in the
lab of one of his collaborators, in ruins after she challenged the accuracy of
a published paper written by Baltimore, the collaborator and four other
Baltimore, who was not invited to the hearings, insisted last week, as did
his defenders, that this is all much ado about nothing.
And although the titles of both hearings include the words "scientific
fraud and misconduct," it is not quite clear if that is exactly what the
"It's hard to tell if it's error or fraud. At certain times, it appears to
be fraud and other times, misrepresentation," said Pete Stockton, a member of
the staff of Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.).
Dingell will hold a hearing Tuesday "on the ability of institutions and
the National Institutes of Health to handle allegations of scientific fraud
Tomorrow's hearing, by Rep. Ted Weiss (D-N.Y.) is called "Scientific
Fraud and Misconduct: the Federal Response." It, too, is expected to focus on
the case involving Baltimore, among others.
The congressional subcommittees have become involved, staff members say,
because they oversee the National Institutes of Health, which spends $6.8
billion a year on biomedical research. Baltimore's lab gets about $1 million a
year of this.
And the NIH, according to a spokeswoman, got involved when it decided to
see whether there was any "validity" to a manuscript on the case involving
Baltimore that was prepared by two NIH scientists who have developed a
reputation as whistle blowers, Walter Stewart and Ned Feder.
Stewart declined to discuss the case in detail. But sources close to the
investigation say Stewart and Feder compiled data, including 17 pages of
photocopied laboratory notebooks, showing discrepancies between what the
scientists' lab data showed and what they printed in the paper.
Though the case involving Baltimore may deal only with scientific error,
the committees will also look at other cases in which scientists allegedly
falsified data or plagiarized someone else's work and then allowed this to be
covered up by the academic institutions involved.
"We've been looking into self-policing by defense contractors," Stockton
said, "but I have never seen anything like this in terms of self-policing.
"They go off and investigate themselves and proclaim themselves clean," he
added of the research community.
Both the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Baltimore is a
professor of biology, and Tufts University School of Medicine, where
Baltimore's former collaborator, Thereza Imanishi-Kari now works, investigated
charges of error and possible misrepresentation stemming from the 1986 paper.
Although both investigations cleared the Boston researchers, "Dingell will
characterize" the inquiries "as piss-poor," Stockton said.
The 1986 research, published in the journal Cell, involved genetic
experiments on mice aimed at understanding how certain genes that control
cells in the immune system can be altered to yield different immunological
Though Baltimore wrote part of the paper, he said, the lead author was
Imanishi-Kari, then an assistant professor with her own lab at MIT and now an
assistant professor of pathology at Tufts.
Imanishi-Kari said Friday that her leaving MIT had "nothing to do with
this," adding, "I have nothing more to say."
The fuss began a few weeks after the Cell paper was published when a
postdoctoral trainee in Imanishi-Kari's lab, Margot O'Toole, began
questioning the accuracy of parts of the paper. O'Toole could not be reached
for comment but is expected to testify next week, although, as Dingell aide
Stockton puts it, "She's not wild about getting back into this."
O'Toole's concerns led to MIT's inquiry, headed by biology professor Dr.
Herman N. Eisen, who could not be reached for comment.
His written report, obtained by the Globe, concluded that although
O'Toole's allegations were "disturbing" and that she was correct "in claiming
that there is an error in the paper," the error was not ''flagrant."
Indeed, wrote Eisen, a "correction would be too minor to rate a letter to
O'Toole also took her case to Dr. Henry Wortis, professor of pathology at
Tufts, a man at the heart of things. He had been O'Toole's mentor, was a
colleague of her husband but was also close to Imanishi-Kari, whom he was
recruiting. And Imanishi-Kari would eventually demote O'Toole.
Wortis admitted he was "involved at both ends," but insisted that this
made his investigation more, not less, fair.
In any case, he concluded that there was "no evidence of deliberate
falsification and no evidence of deliberate misrepresentation. Alternate
interpretations of existing data can be made but that is the stuff of
Baltimore acknowledged Friday that in the lab notebooks "there will be data
that contradicts a given published version. Nobody in biology would doubt
that. But if we let Stewart and Feder use that as the basis for a personal
inquiry, all we'll do is inhibit the free flow of publication. And where there
is a real suspicion of fraud, NIH has established a process of investigation
and I completely support that process."
And what of O'Toole? Although she has agreed to testify, Stockton said, the
episode has left her shaken.
"Thereza demoted her," he said of Imanishi-Kari. "She became the mouse cage
cleaner. She has now left science, and with a vengeance."