NO LETUP IN DEBATE OVER RESEARCH PAPER
Author: By Peter G. Gosselin, Globe Staff
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
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
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
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.