Author: By Judy Foreman and Peter J. Howe, Globe Staff

Date: 06/22/1996 Page: 1

Section: Metro

Thereza Imanishi-Kari, the Boston-area scientist embroiled for a decade in a highly publicized case of alleged research fraud, was found not guilty of any misconduct by a Department of Health and Human Services review board yesterday.

The case involved a 10-year-old dispute about data and results reported in a 1986 scientific paper published in the journal Cell, which was co-authored by a team that included Imanishi-Kari and Nobel laureate David Baltimore, who both worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the time.

Claiming errors and fraud in Imanishi-Kari's contributions to the study, which concerned the workings of the human immune system, one of the researchers involved in the experiment, Margot O'Toole, pressed for an investigation by MIT officials.

The probe led to congressional hearings and subpoenas as Rep. John D. Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, pursued what he contended was a prominent example of fraud in federally backed research. Baltimore battled back, defending Imanishi-Kari and challenging Dingell's prosecutorial approach to the dispute.

At one point, Dingell commissioned the Secret Service to study the possibility that some research data supporting the experiment had been fabricated later as part of a cover-up. The appeal board's review found some possible anomalies but ``no independent or convincing evidence that the data or documents were not authentic.''

In October 1994, the HHS Office of Research Integrity issued a final report declaring Imanishi-Kari was guilty of falsifying data. Imanishi-Kari, who now works in a laboratory in the pathology department of Tufts University School of Medicine, appealed that ruling, and yesterday the HHS Research Integrity and Adjudications Panel sided with her.

``The Office of Research Integrity [ORI] did not prove its charges by a preponderance of the evidence,'' wrote the panel, which included HHS officials Judith A. Ballard, Cecilia Sparks Ford and Dr. Julius S. Younger, distinguished service professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

The review panel held six weeks of hearings beginning last June, amassing a 6,500-page transcript and collecting 70 original lab notebooks to review.

The panel rejected the research office's move to have Imanishi-Kari barred from receiving any federal grants or contracts for 10 years and determined ``that no other administrative actions should be taken.''

The review panel ruling criticized the 1994 findings, saying that ``much of what ORI presented was irrelevant, had limited probative value, was internally inconsistent, lacked reliability or foundation, was not credible or not corroborated, or was based on unwarranted assumptions.''

``Often, ORI found that Dr. Imanishi-Kari had misrepresented data, without fully understanding how she had represented data,'' the review board said, adding that ``most of the data allegedly fabricated were not even included in the Cell paper.''

Neither Baltimore nor Imanishi-Kari could be reached last night, and O'Toole declined to comment when reached at her office at the Genetics Institute, a Cambridge biotechnology concern.

Bruce Singal, attorney for Imanishi-Kari, said, ``This is the first time she's had a real hearing where witnesses could be called and cross-examined and given the trappings of due process. What's tragic about it is it had to take 10 years of hell for her.''

In a prepared statement, HHS officials said: ``The panel examined piece-by-piece all the record evidence, including the original laboratory notebooks, as to each charge. The panel weighed testimony from numerous experts, not by evaluating their credentials -- all of which were impressive -- but by determining the basis for each opinion, any underlying assumptions and the probative value.''

The Cell paper involved the question of how the body creates specially tailored antibodies to fight off the thousands of types of infectious agents that invade.

Imanishi-Kari and Baltimore, experimenting with a group of genetically engineered mice, found that the genes inserted from a different mouse train somehow stimulated the genes native to the mouse to produce antibodies they would otherwise produce rarely, if ever.

Baltimore won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1975. He was named president of Rockefeller University in 1990, but with the controversy over his defense of Imanishi-Kari raging, he resigned that post the next year, pushed by some colleagues and worn out from defending himself against the probes.

Last modified: Wed Sep 20 20:08:31 EDT 2000