Damages set for loss of NIH cells

A former National Institutes of Health scientist found in an unusual court case to have intentionally killed genetically engineered living cells out of apparent jealousy toward a colleague has been ordered to pay damages to the federal government.

The decision by U.S. District Court Judge Peter Messitte was hailed yesterday by the U.S. attorney's office for Maryland as an important step in a relatively new area of law -- the development of genetically engineered organisms.


"The case is highly unusual in that it is one of the first to address the legal question of whether genetically engineered living cells are property protected from intentional harm by federal law," the U.S. attorney's office said.

In the five-day civil case heard in federal court in Baltimore by Judge Messitte, Dr. Prince Kumar Arora, 46, of Bethesda was found to have destroyed millions of "Alpha 1-4 cells" created by fellow researchers.


The living cells developed at NIH were being reproduced and tested for eventual use in what one researcher described as "just about anything that has to do with regulation of brain cells."

Among the key researchers in development of the Alpha 1-4 cells was Dr. Yoshitatsu Sei, who was hired as a postdoctoral student from Japan in 1989 by Dr. Arora, a researcher in the Laboratory of Neuroscience in the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

But Dr. Sei, an expert in cell culturing, was free to participate in projects with other scientists and, in December of 1990, joined neuroscience lab chief Dr. Phil Skolnick and Dr. Garry Wong in pioneering work in genetic engineering.

The goal, the court noted, was to develop "a brand new line of cells which could be transfected into human cells, which could then be cloned into a sufficient number of the newly created cell line" with "significant implications for studies of alcohol, Alzheimer's disease" and other areas of research.

By February 1992, the group had created the Alpha 1-4 cell line and embarked on experiments to scientifically describe the result -- work requiring multiple flasks, each containing millions of cells -- before the development could be announced in scientific journals and donated to a national cell bank for use by scientists worldwide.

"Against this scientific background, however, as often happens in life, human passion began slowly to overtake cool reason," Judge Messitte wrote of the by-then souring relations between Dr. Sei and Dr. Arora.

Among their differences was a feeling by Dr. Sei that Dr. Arora had improperly claimed senior authorship on a paper involving AIDS research.

Feelings were further strained in the fall of 1991, Judge Messitte noted in his 26-page case summary and decision, when a young female research assistant claimed that her mentor -- Dr. Arora -- had sexually harassed her and asked to be assigned to another mentor.


Dr. Skolnick, the laboratory chief, removed Dr. Arora as her mentor and replaced him with Dr. Sei.

At the end of February 1992, Dr. Sei and Dr. Wong noticed massive numbers of Alpha 1-4 cells dying in their incubator and suspected tampering. They marked flask caps and found the next day that the marks were out of alignment -- indicating someone had moved them overnight. A check of the register of visitors to the room indicated that Dr. Arora had been there.

When more cell deaths were discovered at the end of March, Dr. Skolnick reported suspected sabotage to the NIH police.

An NIH detective and Dr. Sei set up a fake experiment in the incubator room -- appropriately, on April Fool's Day -- by putting flasks labeled as holding Alpha 1-4 cells in the incubator, along with 11 other cell flasks.

Alerted by NIH security that Dr. Arora had used his card entry key to get into the room, the detective and Dr. Sei returned to find him outside. Later, they returned again, found the marked flask caps had been moved and sent them to the FBI for analysis.

The result: Four fingerprints on the flasks matched those of Dr. Arora.


Other studies determined that a foreign substance, #2-mercaptoethanol, capable of killing Alpha 1-4 cells overnight, had been added to some flasks.

In subsequent interviews, Dr. Arora admitted adulterating cell tissues, according to testimony from the detective, an NIH police captain and Dr. Skolnick -- the latter saying he asked Dr. Arora, "Why did you do it?"

Dr. Arora's answer, he said, was "To teach Yoshi [Dr. Sei] and Abha [the female research assistant] a lesson," and suggesting that the two of them were "conspiring against me."

Dr. Arora was fired April 14, 1992. The Alpha 1-4 cell project -- said to have been delayed about six weeks -- was successfully completed. And in May 1993, the federal government filed a civil suit against Dr. Arora, alleging wrongdoing and seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

Finding that Dr. Arora had committed the tort of conversion -- wrongfully taking control of the government's property, the Alpha 1-4 cells -- Judge Messitte faced the thorny problem of assessing damages.

On Friday, he ordered the former NIH researcher to pay $176.68 for the loss of flasks and other materials used to culture the cells and $273.52 for services of a laboratory assistant to culture the cells -- along with $5,000 in punitive damages, and court costs that Assistant U.S. Attorney Donna C. Sanger said would likely match that sum.


Judge Messitte said he viewed the punitive damages as a deterrent for actions like those of Dr. Arora which "undermined the honor system that exists among the community of scientists, a system which is ultimately based on 'truthfulness, both as a moral imperative and as a fundamental operational principle in the scientific research process.' "