PROBES GO DEEPER IN BALTIMORE CASE
WITH FOUR INVESTIGATIONS NOW UNDER WAY, A BIG QUESTION IS WHO
KNEW WHAT, WHEN?
Author: By Judy Foreman, Globe Staff
Section: HEALTH AND SCIENCE
Eleven days after a National Institutes of Health investigatory panel
dropped a bombshell with its finding that a former MIT immunologist had
fabricated data concerning a 1986 research paper, the dragnet around her and
her famous colleague, Nobel laureate David Baltimore, continues to widen.
Sources say there are now four federal probes delving ever deeper into the
5-year-old mess that some call "the Baltimore affair" and others have likened
to a "scientific Watergate."
Among the core questions facing investigators are these: What did Baltimore
know about the veracity of his colleague's data, and when did he know it? And
did Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Tufts University School of
Medicine botch their inquiries into the affair?
Baltimore and his colleague, Thereza Imanishi-Kari, both worked at MIT at
the time they and several colleagues published their now-infamous paper in the
journal Cell in April 1986. Baltimore is now head of Rockefeller University
and Imanishi-Kari works at Tufts.
Outside the official investigations, scientists buzz with other questions:
How could Baltimore, who won a Nobel Prize at age 37, have gotten himself into
a mess that has tarnished an otherwise brilliant career? And why did he
continue for five years to defend a colleague whose veracity was being
challenged with each new revelation.
And why, with a few notable exceptions, did the scientific old-boy network
rally so vehemently to Baltimore's case?
The whole thing "is a Greek tragedy. It's hubris that brings down the
tragic hero. The most charitable thing to say is that Baltimore took some
arrogant view that 'I can do no wrong,' that 'whatever I write in science is
true.' He couldn't admit to a mistake. If he had, this wouldn't have
happened," says Harvard University biology professor and Nobel laureate Walter
As for the "sheep-like" behavior of fellow scientists, Gilbert says,
''What's being triggered here is the we/they mentality: 'We' are the chosen
establishment, 'they' are the unwashed barbarians attacking. The line was
drawn . . . and it was 'which side are you on?' Outside looking in? Or peace
and safety and the old-boy network?"
In 1989, for instance, one of Baltimore's staunchest supporters, Phillip
Sharp, the director of MIT's Center for Cancer Research, sent a "Dear
Colleague" letter urging scientists to rally to Baltimore's defense. Sharp
still thinks that "a congressional hearing is not a productive way to debate
But, he adds, "if Thereza fraudulently modified her notes, it's a great
disappointment. But I am absolutely confident that if that occurred, David did
not know of it."
Mark S. Ptashne, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at
Harvard, was another who "got involved initially to defend David against what
I thought was an unwarranted attack on science. I then came to realize that
what was construed as the central claim of the paper was almost certainly
wrong. I could not therefore understand why the authors were refusing to
correct or retract it, . . .so I knew something was wrong."
On March 20, the NIH investigatory panel concluded in a draft report leaked
to the press that Imanishi-Kari had fabricated data in response to its
questions about her work, which has been under fire since shortly after the
paper was published in 1986 because of questions raised by a junior colleague,
Margot O'Toole. The NIH report said Imanishi-Kari had committed "serious
scientific misconduct" and "repeatedly presented false and misleading
information to the NIH."
Only after the NIH report was leaked did Baltimore take the action that
many scientists say he should have taken five years ago: He retracted the
The report did not accuse Baltimore himself of fabricating data. But it
labeled Baltimore's handling of the case "difficult to comprehend" and
''deeply troubling." It also criticized him for suggesting, in interviews with
NIH investigators, that if data "were fabricated, the NIH was somehow
responsible for this act of scientific misconduct."
The report some of Baltimore's statements to investigators
''extraordinary," including this one: "In my mind, you can make up anything
that you want in your notebooks, but you can't call it fraud if it wasn't
published. Now, you managed to trick us into publishing -- sort of tricked
Thereza -- into publishing a few numbers and now you're going to go back and
see if you can produce those as fraud."
Neither Baltimore nor Imanishi-Kari would discuss the case last week, and
their Boston lawyers, Normand Smith, Jr. and Bruce Singal, respectively,
declined to get into the specifics of the case. Singal did say, however, that,
''It has been and continues to be our position that there is absolutely no
credible evidence from which broader sweeping conclusions of fraud can be
The ongoing federal investigations into the Baltimore affair include two at
NIH, one by a congressional subcommittee headed by US Rep. John Dingell (D-
Mich.), which held hearings on the case in 1988, 1989 and 1990, and a fourth,
sources say, by the US attorney's office in Baltimore.
The NIH investigations represent the third attempt by the agency to get to
the bottom of the affair. The first three-person panel named in early 1988 was
almost immediately disbanded when critics pointed out it was virtually packed
with Baltimore's colleagues. A second NIH panel concluded in February 1989
that there was "no evidence of fraud, manipulation or misrepresentation of
But that finding collapsed quickly when Dingell held hearings in May, 1989
to present forensic evidence compiled by Secret Services agents showing that
certain pages in Imanishi-Kari's key laboratory notebook had been created
after O'Toole challenged the paper in 1986. (Since then, the NIH has concluded
that these and other experiments were simply faked.)
NIH, prompted in part by the Dingell hearings and new questions by O'Toole,
who had examined information given her by NIH, added members to its panel and
reopened the case. It is this panel that recently concluded that Imanishi-Kari
fabricated data. (In a minority report, two of the five panel members disputed
precisely how many of the experiments were faked.)
Dingell is continuing his probe into the matter and, according to a member
of his staff, will have its written report completed "around the first of
June." Working with Dingell's staff have been two NIH scientists, Ned Feder
and Walter Stewart, who have made a career out of examining cases of alleged
scientific fraud and misconduct.
Jeff Garinther of the US attorney's office in Maryland said Friday he could
neither confirm nor deny that his office was involved.
If NIH finds a scientist has committed fraud or made false statements to
its investigators, it can turn the case over to the Justice Department for
possible criminal prosecution.
Sources said the US attorney's office has met several times with NIH and
Suzanne Hadley of the Office of Scientific Integrity is heading the ongoing
probes at NIH. One, a look at the scientific issues involved, formed the basis
of the draft report leaked last month. The principals in the case have until
April 22 to submit rebuttals to the draft report.
The final report could recommend penalties, including barring a researcher
from receiving future NIH funding, as has happened in other scientific
The second NIH investigation is being called informally the who-knew-what-
when investigation and will focus, among other things, on the ''institutional
response" by MIT and Tufts to the entire affair.
"Who knew what when -- that's the question many people would like to know
the answer to," said Hadley last week, though she declined to go into
specifics about either investigation.
According to a source close to the investigation, one part of the NIH
report that could take on more significance as the case progresses concerns
the finding that Imanishi-Kari did not compile her laboratory notebooks at the
time of the reported experiments, but only after the investigations began. The
report suggests that Baltimore and his lawyer, Normand Smith Jr., were aware
that Imanishi-Kari only assembled notebooks in response to the NIH probe, and
that Smith may have suggested that she do so.
After the first NIH report in January, 1989, the latest report says, Margot
O'Toole asked for access to certain data to review. When O'Toole examined
NIH's material, the new report says, she "discovered there were no data in the
notebooks for the fourth data point of Figure 1. . .."
"Also during this time," the latest NIH report says, "NIH became aware for
the first time that Dr. Imanishi-Kari's notebooks had not been compiled
contemporaneously with the conduct of the reported experiments. Rather, the
notebooks were assembled specifically to respond to challenges to the paper.
"Subsequent information provided by Dr. Baltimore and his attorney, Normand
Smith, Jr., indicated they were aware of Dr. Imanishi-Kari's having organized
the notebooks to respond to the NIH and Congressman Dingell's subcommittee,"
the report says.
It goes on: "During the April 31, 1990 interview by NIH investigators with
Dr. Baltimore, Mr. Smith said a meeting was held where 'Thereza came with all
of her data and there was a discussion. . .as to whether we should just dump
it on the doorstep of the committee . . . or should she go through her data,
catalog it and put it in order and try and make it as comprehensible as
Smith, the NIH report says, then said, "I think I may have been
instrumental in advising her to do the latter, which I think was, in a large
part, her undoing."
Another aspect of the case that is getting new attention is the conduct of
the committees named by MIT and Tufts after O'Toole first voiced her concerns
The MIT review of the case was headed by Herbert Eisen, emeritus professor
of immunology, who listened to O'Toole's questions about Imanisihi-Kari's data
and found no need to publish a correction to the paper published in CELL.
Asked last week if he would have handled the case the same way knowing what
he knows now, Eisen said, "It's hard to answer. I would have tried to take
some kind of measures to have dealt with the issues in a way less tragic and
less painful for so many people, like urging Margot O'Toole to write a letter
to CELL. I did not urge that strongly enough."
Walter Gilbert, however, took Eisen to task.
"One of the great dangers is that the established community closes ranks
against the whistleblower -- that's completely what happened in this case.
Eisen is saying he didn't know what he should do, but it was his
responsibility to conjecture that there might have been fraud. He should have
examined the data.
"He should not have discussed whether the ideas or speculations in the
paper were correct. He should simply have asked whether the purported
experiment was factually correct, that certain observations were made. That's
what the review committee failed to do."
As head of the Tufts review, Dr. Henry Wortis, professor of pathology and
immunology, is also on the hot seat. He says now that "there are things I
would do differently," including "having made sure there was a more formal
Pressed on whether he thinks Imanishi-Kari committed fraud, Wortis
responded, "I'll say no, but do I have positive evidence that she didn't? No,
I don't have that either."
Wortis' role in the case is being investigated in Washington, according to
sources familiar with the case. He testified at a 1989 Dingell hearing that
the central thesis of the CELL paper -- that foreign genes inserted into mice
cause native or "endogenous" genes to change the type of antibodies they make
-- has been confirmed by other researchers.
Others say no one has been able to confirm it. In a recent interview with
the journal Science, Wortis insisted that the supposedly confirmatory results
exist but are unpublished, but he refused to disclose the name of the
scientist or explain why the experiments, supposedly done two years ago, have
not been published.