Author: By Peter G. Gosselin, Globe Staff

Date: 05/10/1989 Page: 8

WASHINGTON -- A former Tufts University researcher told a House subcommittee yesterday that her chief question about a scientific paper co- authored by Nobel laureate David Baltimore was never answered, and a school official responsible for investigating her complaint acknowledged that the paper's central claim has yet to be independently confirmed.

Margot O'Toole told the subcommittee on oversight and investigations of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce that her career was "badly . . . even irrevocably damaged" when she complained there was insufficient evidence for a 1986 paper by Baltimore, Thereza Imanishi-Kari, who was O'Toole's boss, and four others.

But Henry Wortis, a Tufts professor who with two colleagues first investigated O'Toole's complaint, said the authors had plenty of evidence for their surprising claims about how genes regulate the immune system. Wortis added, however, that other scientists have yet to publish independent confirmations of the results.

The two researchers were among eight to appear at the second hearing in as many weeks on the scientific controversy, which has pitted Baltimore and much of the American scientific establishment against the House panel's crusty chairman, Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan.

The daylong session appeared to end in a draw as Dingell, a Democrat, gaveled the session to a close without announcing further probes. But the controversy seems far from over.

An official with the National Institutes of Health, which had already announced it will reopen an investigation of the research that had been closed three months ago, said agency officials will probably look specifically for wrongdoing.

Of the 1986 paper, Katherine L. Bick, deputy NIH director said: "Our mind- set has been to try to explain discrepencies on a scientific basis, and we had not thought about criminal intent. We may have to recalibrate that mind- set to bring a higher degree of skepticism" to the reopened probe.

Bick said the probe could take up to six months.

From its outset, controversy over the paper has provoked widely divergent reactions, with critics and defenders often seeming to talk past each other. Scientific leaders have expressed barely controlled outrage over any congressional involvement in the case, and some congressional leaders have returned the fire, reminding researchers that the taxpayer foots the bill for much of their work. Yesterday's hearing held to the pattern.

O'Toole, who led off the session, rejected characterizations of her dispute with the paper's authors as merely one of interpreting lab data. "I did not challenge the paper because I felt I had a better interpretation of the data," she told the panel. "I challenged the paper because it represented evidence that simply did not exist, period."

She charged that university superiors to whom she complained did not demand to see most of the data in question, especially that of Imanishi-Kari, on whose work most of O'Toole's complaints focus. She said that an NIH panel that investigated the case last year accepted data produced after the paper was published as evidence of its correctness.

She said that superiors, including Wortis, her former thesis adviser, and Herman Eisen, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who also looked into her complaints, violated agreements on how to handle the investigation and on what help she could receive if she had problems landing a job because she challenged the paper.

However, Wortis and others who followed O'Toole to the witness table either flatly or indirectly contradicted her, saying the researcher's complaints were carefully handled, that important lab data was reviewed and no agreements were violated.

The scientists characterized as minor problems with the paper, which has already been the subject of one published correction and is expected to be the subject of a second.

The paper was originally published in April 1986 in the journal Cell. In addition to Baltimore, who heads the Whitehead Institute of Biomedical Research in Cambridge, and Imanishi-Kari, a pathologist at Tufts, other authors included David Weaver of Boston's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Moema Reis, now of the Instituto Biologico in Sao Paulo.

The paper focused on what happens when a foreign gene is introduced into a host animal. One the things that happens is that the host produces certain kinds of proteins that look like those usually ordered up by the foreign gene. The paper's surprising conclusion however, was that the host's own gene,
somehow influenced by the foreign gene, caused production of those proteins. It is this claim that O'Toole says was not adequately supported.

Last modified: Wed Sep 20 17:01:56 EDT 2000