NIH report finds fraud in MIT research
By Andrew L. Fish
After a highly publicized investigation of scientific fraud at an MIT biomedical laboratory, the National Institutes of Health have concluded that a former MIT researcher fabricated crucial data in a 1986 scientific paper.
Thereza Imanishi-Kari coauthored the paper with Nobel laureate and former Whitehead Institute Director David Baltimore '61 and others. The paper, based on work at the MIT Center for Cancer Research, was published in the journal Cell in 1986.
Baltimore, who had previously been a staunch defender of the paper and Imanishi-Kari, asked Wednesday that the paper be retracted. While he was unavailable for comment yesterday, Baltimore, who is now president of Rockefeller University, told The New York Times that Imanishi-Kari would have to answer the specific allegations of fraud.
The NIH investigators did not accuse Baltimore of fraud, but they called his continued defense of the Cell article and Imanishi-Kari "extraordinary" and "difficult to comprehend," according to portions of a draft report obtained by The Tech.
The draft report, which has not been made public, accused Imanishi-Kari of "serious scientific misconduct," stating that she "repeatedly presented false and misleading information" to the investigators and expert scientific panels.
Imanishi-Kari is currently a professor at Tufts University. Her laboratory referred questions to her attorney, Bruce A. Singal, who did not return phone calls. But he told The Boston Globe Wednesday that, while he would not comment on the substance of the report, "there is no evidence whatsoever of falsification or fabrication."
Tufts is "reviewing the report and [has] been asked to keep it confidential for 30 days," said Tufts Director of Communications Rosemarie Van Kamp.
NIH spokesman Donald M. Ralbovsky would not discuss the substance of the draft report and pointed out that the period for parties to comment on the draft had not elapsed.
Data was falsified, NIH claim
The Cell article reported experiments on laboratory mice that seemed to indicate that the introduction of foreign genes into an animal could lead to the expression of related genes within the animal, a topic which the biological community is still debating. The finding, which has not been confirmed, could have implications for immunological study and gene transplant work.
The NIH investigators said that, based on statistical and forensic analysis, some of the data produced by Imanishi-Kari for the paper and a subsequent correction were fabricated. Based on analysis by the Secret Service, the report charges that parts of Imanishi-Kari's laboratory notebook were falsified. Also, the report alleges that some supporting computer tapes were made years before the MIT research began.
Baltimore received his sharpest criticism for his defense of the allegedly falsified data. The report indicated that he blamed the NIH for the fraud. The report quoted him as saying, "If those data were not real, then she [Imanishi-Kari] was driven by the process of investigation into an unseemly act. But it does not go to the heart of any scientific issue. . . ." Baltimore was referring to an NIH-mandated correction to the Cell paper.
The report also quotes Baltimore as saying that "in my mind you can make up anything you want in your notebooks, but you can't call it fraud if it wasn't published." Baltimore continued to tell investigators, "Now, you managed to trick us into publishing . . . and now you're going to go back and see if you can produce those [numbers] as fraud."
The report called these statements "deeply troubling." The report added that Baltimore's remarks were "all the more startling when one considers that Dr. Baltimore, by virtue of his seniority and standing, might have been instrumental in effecting a resolution of the concerns about the Cell paper early on, possibly before Dr. Imanishi-Kari fabricated some of the data later found to be fraudulent."
The report praised Margot O'Toole, a former postdoctoral fellow at MIT and one of the paper's original challengers. It called her actions "heroic in many respects" and said that she "deserves the approbation and gratitude of the scientific community for her courage and her dedication to the belief that truth in science matters."
After raising her concerns about the Cell paper with faculty members at both MIT and Tufts, O'Toole complained that the resulting institutional reviews of the research were flawed by "false and damaging" statements, misrepresentations, and the investigators' failure to press for the correction of the paper's false claims, which she characterized at the time as error, not fraud.
At the same time, O'Toole claimed that her career began to unravel as the result of hostility on the part of unnamed MIT faculty members and Imanishi-Kari, who, she said, requested that O'Toole not be allowed to return to an appointment at Tufts. The NIH report supported this claim, saying that the "loss of [O'Toole's] position in Dr. Imanishi-Kari's laboratory is only the most visible symbol of the price exacted of her after she raised the challenges to the paper."
O'Toole said she was "very relieved that the truth has finally come out." She called the report "an act of courage on the part of the people that wrote it." She noted that while an investigation into MIT's handling of the matter is continuing, "the scientific issues have been settled."
O'Toole said she was happy with her current position with Genetics Institute, a Cambridge biotechnology company, and has no plans to return to a university setting.
Deutch: MIT scrupulous
Former Provost John M. Deutch '61, who has supported Baltimore, had not seen the NIH report. "I'm certainly not prepared to make a comment about academic misconduct without having studied the report," he said.
"The reports from NIH since this matter began have been frequent and not always consistent," Deutch said. "I think it's very careful to wait until one looks at the particulars of this report."
An earlier MIT investigation of O'Toole's claims found no evidence of misconduct. Profes
sor of Immunology Emeritus Herman N. Eisen, who led that investigation, told The New York Times he did not believe he should have acted differently, given the information presented at the time. Yesterday, he referred all questions to Deutch.
Deutch was "firmly of the view that MIT's conduct in this matter was scrupulously correct at every step of the way."
Yet, President Charles M. Vest, who also had not seen the NIH report, issued a statement which said he has "asked a small group of faculty and administrators to look into our procedures for dealing with allegations of academic misconduct."
The statement, which was addressed to MIT faculty and researchers, asked for help in designing "an Institute-wide program to ensure that all junior colleagues are appropriately mentored in [objective] methodologies and attitudes."
Dingell pleased with system
A spokesman for the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation, chaired by John D. Dingell (D-MI), said the committee might hold further hearings on the matter after the NIH completes its investigation. Dingell's committee has also been investigating O'Toole's fraud allegations.
In a statement, Dingell said, "The system seems to be working as we had hoped. There is still more work to be done. I trust that NIH will look at the way certain institutions and individuals responded -- or failed to respond -- to some very serious allegations and evidence of misconduct."
Baltimore and his supporters have been upset by Dingell's involvement in the investigation. In a 1988 letter to colleagues, Baltimore called Dingell's probe "totally unnecessary" and warned that "what we are undergoing is a harbinger of threats to scientific communication and scientific freedom."
Deutch also expressed concern that the Baltimore investigation -- like the congressional investigation of Stanford's overhead policy and the Justice Department antitrust probe into university admissions and financial aid policies -- was indicative of "a lack of public confidence and appreciation of the nation's great research universities."
Deutch, who is currently on a National Academy of Sciences committee writing a report on scientific misconduct in the academic community, said "the proper response to that is not to turn away from the controversy, but for universities to forthrightly meet these questions and attempt to restore confidence in these terrific assets of the nation."
(Editor's note: Andrea D. Lamberti and Jeremy Hylton contributed to the reporting of this story.)