Scientists clash in battle over honesty in research

July 25, 1991|By Patricia Meisol

They started as partners in a quest to solve the riddle of deadly diseases, and they became enemies in a contest over wiggly lines. In the pitch of battle, there were papers pulled at the last minute from scientific journals, anonymous tips, allegations of stolen data in the halls of the School of Pharmacy and ugly confrontations at annual scientific meetings.

It might be absurd, except that now the reputations of two strong-willed scientists hang in the balance. Pitted against each other are a young researcher, Carmen M. Arroyo, and the head of her former lab at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, Gerald M. Rosen, in a case that goes to the heart of science: honesty in published research.

Dr. Rosen was cleared of misconduct by a university committee in April, and Dr. Arroyo is seeking a second opinion from the National Institutes of Health. Nine days ago, their clash boiled over in a lawsuit by Dr. Rosen that also names this reporter and The Baltimore Sun as defendants.

She is a 33-year-old chemist in the prime of her career who earned her stripes in a published work involving the heart that fellow scientists say still stands as among the earliest and best of its kind. He is a 48-year-old chemist and lawyer, chairman of pharmacology and toxicology, whose contributions include the discovery of an enzyme and its effect in cells.

They labor in an obscure field of science whose practitioners, were an international conference called today, would total no more than 130 people. Their passion is finding and trapping free radicals in living things.

Free radicals, formed from oxygen and other things, such as sunlight on the skin, toxic chemicals, and drugs, are thought to be important in the human disease process, perhaps even precursors to cancer. Ultimately, scientists hope to find how these cause disease and introduce chemical compounds to stop them.

Free radicals have a fleeting life span, but for the past 15 years, scientists have been able to detect their presence in animals and test tubes with an electron spin resonance machine. This machine produces a written record of the structure of the trapped free radical in the form of a chart of peaks and valleys.

Between the peaks and valleys on this chart, or spectra, are some wiggly lines. Noise is all they represent, random static during the experiment.

Because the noise in each experiment is different, these wiggly lines are a kind of fingerprint, most scientists say. Thus no two experiments, even when they result in the same peaks and valleys, have the same wiggly lines.

Last spring, something prompted Dr. Arroyo to inspect the wiggly lines on 13 papers published by Dr. Rosen while he was at Duke University. She grouped them two or three to a set and compared the wiggly lines. The captions under the spectra said they came from different experiments, but to her the wiggly lines looked similar.

So it was that she alleged misconduct by Dr. Rosen to the university and the federal government.

From the beginning, it was a contest of wills.

According to the lawsuit filed by Dr. Rosen last week, this case amounts to false charges stemming from a personal vendetta. In February 1990, he withdrew a paper Dr. Arroyo had prepared for FEBS Letters, a journal, because of problems he found in her research and after she had refused to show him reviewers' comments. Angered by this, the lawsuit says, Dr. Arroyo initiated a campaign to discredit him. (The university, consulting an outside expert, later ruled that Dr. Rosen had appropriately withdrawn the paper. It has since been changed and published by Dr. Arroyo in a British journal.)

Dr. Arroyo maintains her charges were motivated by the need tpreserve the integrity of science. She says it was Dr. Rosen who first became angry. This was over her challenge to his research results three months earlier, shortly after Dr. Rosen recruited her from George Washington University. It began, she says, when Dr. Rosen asked her to write up an experiment from a photocopy of the data.

Dr. Arroyo, in an interview with The Sun, said she asked him for the original data, and when this was not forthcoming, tried unsuccessfully to reproduce the experiment to get the data. This was not unusual, since scientists can't always reproduce their -- own work.

So she asked Dr. Rosen to show her what she was doing wrong. "I thought I would learn something from him," she said. Instead, Dr. Arroyo said, "he got very mad and asked for my resignation."

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