NIH REOPENS INQUIRY INTO RESEARCH BY BOSTON TEAM
Author: By Judy Foreman and Peter G. Gosselin, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON -- New evidence developed by the Secret Service showing that a
Boston researcher's scientific notebooks were altered prompted the National
Institutes of Health last night to reopen its investigation into a highly
controversial paper written by a team of scientists that includes Nobel
laureate David Baltimore.
Only two months ago, an NIH panel cleared the group of the most serious
allegations against the scientists -- fraud, misconduct, manipulation of data
and serious conceptual errors -- in connection with the paper, which studied
genetic control of the immune system.
Included in the new evidence is a letter written by Baltimore less than six
months after the paper was published in April 1986, suggesting that Baltimore
himself had serious doubts about portions of the paper. Baltimore is director
of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge and a biology
professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Last night, in a telephone interview, Baltimore said, "What I wrote in that
letter I only believed to be true for about two days."
In addition to Baltimore, the study team included Thereza Imanishi-Kari, a
pathologist at Tufts University School of Medicine and the scientist whose
notebooks appeared to have been doctored; Moema Reis, now of the Instituto
Biologico in Sao Paulo, Brazil; David Weaver of Boston's Dana Farber Cancer
Institute and two others.
The case has generated an extraordinary furor among scientists, some of
whom say Baltimore and his colleagues have been harassed by federal
Secret Service investigators focused most of their attention on one of
Imanishi-Kari's notebooks. The investigators found evidence of changes in
notebook entries that could be interpreted as an attempt to make it appear
that there was more evidence for the paper's conclusions than existed at the
time of publication.
The Boston Globe was unable to reach Imanishi-Kari last night for comment.
The controversy surrounding the paper has become a kind of cause celebre
for US Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, the the powerful chairman of a House
subcommittee on oversight and investigations, whose staff has been probing the
affair for more than a year, aided by "whistle blowers" inside NIH and at MIT
Dingell will hold hearings on the matter Thursday and Friday.
Baltimore said last night he met last week with members of Dingell's staff,
accompanied by what he called "a bevy of lawyers" whose services, he said, are
being paid for largely by the Whitehead Institute.
In September 1986, Baltimore wrote a confidential letter, a copy of which
was obtained by the Globe, to his MIT colleague, Dr. Herman N. Eisen, who was
investigating the case for MIT.
In that letter, Baltimore acknowledged that a particular test for an
antibody, or disease-fighting protein, discussed in the paper "doesn't do as
described in the paper. . . . Thereza's statement to you that she knew it all
the time is a remarkable admission of guilt."
Despite that acknowledgement, Baltimore's letter continued that a
retraction of the paper "would be difficult because David Weaver would be
identified as senior author, and he really had nothing to do with those data."
In a further paragraph, Baltimore added, "If the work came solely from
Thereza's laboratory, I would wonder about what else might be wrong."
Last night, however, Baltimore said: "The subcommittee is pretending that I
should believe that letter is correct, and this is simply false. I only
believed it was correct for a very short length of time as a consequence of a
straightforward misunderstanding. Everything I say in that letter was an error
occasioned by Herman misunderstanding something Thereza had said."
Asked about evidence the Secret Service is expected to provide in testimony
at Dingell's hearings next week about doctoring of scientific notebooks or
altering of records after publication of disputed data, Baltimore said, "As
far as I know, there is no evidence of forgery. The Secret Service will not
testify the documents were forged. They will only testify as to how the
notebooks were put together. The notebooks were put together many times
because they were reviewed by different panels.
"It is very important to recognize that what they are calling forgery does
not have a definition."
Asked if it is common practice for scientists to alter entries in lab
notebooks, Baltimore said scientists change entries in notebooks "all the
time. Notebooks are records of what scientists do and think. They are not
diaries. I know of no evidence" that Imanishi-Kari altered any data.
Asked if he would like to distance himself from Imanishi-Kari in the light
of the new evidence, Baltimore said, "No, not in the slightest."
Dingell, who first held hearings on this matter a year ago, has maintained
that the NIH review, like previous investigations of the affair by MIT and
Tufts, has been inadequate.
Last night, congressional sources said the NIH director, Dr. James
Wyngaarden, ordered the agency to reopen the investigation only after seeing
the new evidence compiled by the Secret Service and Dingell's staff.
According to a Dingell spokesman, the congressman feels that academic
institutions are not willing to conduct thorough self-policing on matters in
which scientific misconduct, fraud or error may be involved and that NIH,
which funds biomedical research at many institutions, is not capable of doing
At Dingell's hearing last year, Charles Maplethorpe, a former graduate
student in Imanishi-Kari's lab, testified he believed she had committed fraud.
A postdoctoral student, Dr. Margot O'Toole, the "whistle-blower" whose
questions led to the MIT and Tufts investigations, testified that the
''dispute has halted my career . . . and had a devastating effect on my life."