By Michael Specter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 3, 1989 ; Page A16

The National Institutes of Health has absolved Nobel laureate David Baltimore and several colleagues of charges of scientific fraud, but the expert investigative panel concluded there were major lapses in the researchers' judgment.

A decision had been awaited for months in the case in which Baltimore and his coworkers had been accused of fraud, misconduct and manipulation of data in a 1986 report published in the scientific journal Cell. Baltimore, director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, is perhaps the most prominent American researcher to have been accused of fraud.

In a highly unusual action, NIH Director James B. Wyngaarden last year convened a special committee to examine the allegations about the NIH-funded research. While it found no merit to the most serious charges, the panel did find "significant errors of misstatement and omission." And Wyngaarden concluded that the researchers have not properly corrected several errors in the work.

Since the controversy became public last spring, the case has underscored growing disputes about how legitimate disagreements over the conduct of scientific research should be investigated and resolved.

The research involves extremely complicated immunological studies. Baltimore's lab and one at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology then run by Thereza Imanishi-Kari experimented with genetically engineered mice in an effort to understand how certain genes regulate the immune system.

The results were published in Cell on April 25, 1986. Margot O'Toole, a researcher in the MIT lab, became convinced there were serious flaws in the work. She brought them to attention of officials at MIT and NIH. The report's findings support some of her original contentions.

Wyngaarden wrote the researchers that although they had published a letter to Cell last year acknowledging errors in the study, their letter "did not deal with all the issues which require attention." The panel faulted the researchers' judgment for failing to correct inaccuracies in the article, for methodological errors in the study and for other omissions.

Wyngaarden directed Baltimore and his coauthors, Imanishi-Kari, Moema Reis and David Weaver, to write a fuller letter of correction, which "should be sent to me prior to your sending it to the journal, so that we may review it for completeness and accuracy."

In a prepared statement, Baltimore said he "felt vindicated" by the documents released late Wednesday by NIH. He did not immediately agree to comply with the request for further correction.

"If further clarification of the paper seems warranted," he said in the statement, "we will respond appropriately, as would be the case with any scientific publication. However, we do not see that {the panelists} have identified such questions" that were not resolved by the original correction.

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