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Researcher Cleared Of Fraud Sets Out To Regain Her Job

July 12, 1996

BOSTON (AP) _ A scientist whose work on mouse immune systems thrust her into a 10-year dispute over whether she had faked her results has set about to regain her teaching post and government grants.

But although Thereza Imanishi-Kari was exonerated last month by a federal appeals board, she fears she may never recover her reputation.

``I’m sure there will always be people who still believe I’m guilty,″ said Imanishi-Kari, now a research associate at the Tufts University medical school. ``I don’t care. If I cared, I would be dead by now.″

After some thought, she added: ``I do care. But there is nothing I can do about it.″

Imanishi-Kari, 52, was a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor when her work was published in the journal Cell in 1986. It indicated that introducing foreign genes in mouse cells spurred the production of a variety of antibodies, which protect the body from bacteria and viruses.

She and her co-authors, including the Nobel Prize-winning biologist David Baltimore, speculated that the foreign genes encouraged the host animal’s immune system to produce antibodies that otherwise would have occurred in smaller numbers, or not at all, in adult mice.

The finding raised the prospect that specific genes could be introduced as a way of producing antibodies to protect the body from specific viruses. That possibility had personal significance to Imanishi-Kari, who lost a sister to the genetic disease lupus and suffers herself from the disease.

But Imanishi-Kari’s research was questioned by a laboratory assistant, Margot O’Toole, who could not obtain the same results when she repeated the experiment. Even before the charges were made, MIT had informed Imanishi-Kari that she wouldn’t get a permanent place on the faculty, and Tufts had offered her a job.

O’Toole’s charges began a series of investigations by MIT, Tufts and the National Institutes of Health, which at first found Imanishi-Kari innocent of fraud.

Still, ``the perception remained in the public that there were guilty people here,″ said Henry Wortis, director of the immunology program at the Tufts School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences and an Imanishi-Kari supporter. ``The real question is, why did people believe that? Why did this have a 10-year run?″

He said one reason is that the public misunderstands the process of science, which draws a distinction between fact and interpretation.

``As scientists, we take as a fact something today because of what we view as the evidence we have available to us,″ Wortis said. ``Tomorrow, the notion of what the truth is may change as other evidence accumulates. That doesn’t mean that we were lied to or defrauded the day before.″

The charges came under scrutiny again by the NIH, in response to congressional pressure. A leaked 1991 draft report characterized her as guilty of misconduct, and in November 1994, the agency’s Office of Research Integrity found Imanishi-Kari guilty of 19 counts of scientific misconduct, including lying to cover up her actions. It ordered that she be barred from receiving federal research contracts for 10 years.

Imanishi-Kari lost her federal grants and her faculty position at Tufts and was removed from teaching, although the American Cancer Society and Leukemia Society continued to finance her and she kept her lab and an office.

``It was very painful to watch my friends, to watch my daughter, who was 10 years old, to watch my family listen to that stuff,″ she said.

In 1993, she successfully repeated her original experiment, which also was corroborated separately that year by an independent team of scientists.

She appealed to the Research Integrity Adjudications Panel of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which conducted more hearings and amassed about 6,500 pages of evidence and testimony over more than a year.

Until the appeals hearings, Imanishi-Kari was not allowed to see the charges or evidence against her, call witnesses or confront her accusers.

``It’s the opposite of science,″ she said. ``I don’t know why a board that investigates misconduct in science shouldn’t adopt the same principles of a regular court. A person should be considered innocent until proven guilty.″

The appeals panel, made up of two judges, two lawyers and a scientist, last month cleared Imanishi-Kari of all charges and leveled a scathing rebuke of the 10-year process that had found her guilty in the first place.

The Office of Research Integrity used ``convoluted reasoning″ and had misread the data, the ruling said. It found no ``fraud, conscious misrepresentation or manipulation of data.″

Imanishi-Kari celebrated at a quiet dinner with Baltimore, who had left MIT to become president of Rockefeller University in New York in the interim but resigned over the controversy. He has since returned to work at MIT.

Imanishi-Kari blames the press, politicians and some of her colleagues for prolonging the attacks against her, though she won’t ascribe motives.

``Ask them,″ she said. ``I want to know, too. Honestly, there are very ugly scientists. That doesn’t mean that every scientist is ugly. I don’t think it’s as bad as it is in business. It’s a horrible competition when you want to sell a product. I think there is also some of that in science.″

Imanishi-Kari has asked to be reinstated to the faculty at Tufts, a request a university spokeswoman said is being considered by the president.

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