NIH REOPENS INQUIRY INTO RESEARCH BY BOSTON TEAM

Author: By Judy Foreman and Peter G. Gosselin, Globe Staff

Date: 04/29/1989 Page: 1
Section: NATIONAL/FOREIGN

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 investigators.

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 research labs.

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 so either.

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."

Last modified: Wed Sep 20 20:23:09 EDT 2000