SCIENTISTS ACKNOWLEDGE MISTAKES IN AN ARTICLE
Author: By Judy Foreman, Globe Staff
A team of Boston-based scientists that includes a Nobel Prize laureate has
acknowledged three "misstatements" made in a scientific paper published in the
journal Cell more than two years ago.
Their letter to the magazine was written at the suggestion of a panel of
investigators from the National Institutes of Health. A powerful House
committee chairman said the investigators' tip enabled the scientists to
''defuse" an upcoming NIH report on the misstatements.
The scientists are Nobel laureate David Baltimore, director of the
Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge; Thereza Imanishi-
Kari, a pathologist at the Tufts University School of Medicine; Moema Reis,
now of the Instituto Biologico in Sao Paolo, Brazil; and David Weaver from
Boston's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
The names of two authors of the original paper, Frank Constantini and
Christopher Albanese, do not appear in the letter to Cell.
The scientists said their letter, to be published in tomorrow's issue, was
prompted by the "intense scrutiny" their paper has received.
Two of the misstatements involve scientific questions first raised by NIH
investigators in September, and the third involves an error raised and
acknowledged in the spring of 1986, when the article was published, Baltimore
said in a telephone interview.
The paper, which describes experiments on the genetic control of the immune
system, became the focus of widespread press coverage in April when a former
graduate student in Imanishi-Kari's lab testified before a House subcommittee
that he suspected she committed fraud in representing her data. A lawyer for
Imanishi-Kari has denied the accusation.
The hearing before the House Commerce and Energy subcommittee on oversight
and investigation prompted an NIH investigation. Both Tufts and the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where some of the researchers did work
for the paper, also investigated the matter.
In their letter to Cell, the scientists say their errors "are not material
alterations and do not affect the conclusions of the paper, which remain
appropriate and have been the basis of further studies."
NIH is "very close to completing" its report on the controversy, said an
NIH spokesman, John Butler. The matter has provoked intense controversy in the
scientific press and among scientists, in part because the investigations of
both the NIH and the subcommittee were sparked by concerns raised by two
scientists at NIH, Ned Feder and Walter Stewart, who have developed a
reputation as whistle-blowers on issues of scientific error, misconduct and
Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the chairman of the subcommittee, has
expressed concern that academic institutions are not willing to police
themselves thoroughly on matters in which scientific misconduct, fraud or
error may be involved. He has also suggested that the NIH, which funds
biomedical research, may not be capable of doing so either.
While Baltimore said the letter to Cell was prompted by a desire to "set
straight" questions that had become confusing, Dingell criticized the NIH
panel for telling the scientists about the emerging NIH findings.
In a Nov. 10 letter to Dr. Otis Bowen, secretary of health and human
services, Dingell said he found it "curious" that "the coauthors are now
suddenly acknowledging misstatements." Bowen's office had no comment on the
Dingell said the NIH panel had warned the targets of its investigation of
its findings, allowing them to blunt the upcoming report.
Dingell expressed "concern over the fact that the NIH panel directly or
indirectly conveyed to the subjects of its investigation the findings of their
investigative report and in effect suggested how the authors could preempt the
findings. The authors were thus able to defuse the NIH report by writing a
letter to the editor of Cell, which made it appear that they were voluntarily
correcting errors that had only recently come to their attention."