Whistle-blower finally gains her vindication After 3 years, agency acts in cancer center research fraud case

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Three years after Johns Hopkins-trained biochemist Faith Fenderson blew the whistle, a little-known federal agency issued the report that she had been waiting for. Three years for 20 pages of vindication.

In the report dated Feb. 12, the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) in Rockville spelled out what one expert calls "the most clear-cut case of research fraud" he's seen.

Thomas Devine, legal director of the Washington-based Government Accountability Project, adds the case is unique not for its outcome -- he calls it typical -- but for the stark clarity of its facts.

Fenderson alerted her employer, Philadelphia's Fox Chase Cancer Center, to research data that her co-worker simply made up, the ORI report shows. But, she says, the renowned research institution was more concerned with protecting itself than protecting her or finding the truth.

Fenderson said as a result of her accusation against the technician, she was -- among other things -- barred from her laboratory and called "the troublemaker" by her former colleagues.

And she said that federal regulators, while affirming her charges, did little to penalize the institution.

The ORI criticized Fox Chase and gave it until mid-May to put in place a plan to see that whistle-blowers will be better protected.

Under a negotiated agreement reached in November, the technician agreed to a two-year ban on participation in any federally funded research projects without admitting guilt to the data falsification charges.

Meanwhile, Fenderson's cause has been taken up by her longtime mentor and former college professor, Warren Love, a biophysicist at the Johns Hopkins University. Dissatisfied with the latest action, Love says he wants ORI to reopen the case.

Fenderson, who is now 40, quit Fox Chase in March 1995 and took a job outside her field at a toy company. She returned to science in a temporary teaching post at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. But with that about to end, she's looking for work again, convinced her whistle-blowing is making it hard to advance her career.

Citing comments from her former colleagues who referred to her "the troublemaker," Fenderson says: "I think they have succeeded in blackballing me."

Fenderson said she learned of her vindication in April only after she filed a formal request with ORI for its Feb. 12 report under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Center is 'satisfied'

Eric T. Rosenthal, a spokesman for Fox Chase, said it had "tried consistently" to provide Fenderson "with the support necessary to continue her research career."

He declined to answer specific questions about her case but issued a two-sentence written statement indicating Fox Chase was "satisfied that after three years ORI and the Secretary of Health and Human Services have finally settled the issue with the individual technician involved without finding any scientific misconduct."

Asked to address the content of ORI's Feb. 12 report concerning the technician's actions rather than the wording of the November sanction, the center responded that it stood on its statement.

ORI, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has itself been embroiled in controversy over the federal government's role in ensuring research integrity.

The agency primarily oversees investigations conducted by the institutions themselves and rarely conducts its own probes.

Since its creation in 1992, the agency has handled some 1,000 allegations of misconduct and has found 68, including Fenderson's, to be valid. Most of its cases have been resolved by negotiated settlements.

Among them were two cases in the past year that involve sanctions against researchers at the Johns Hopkins University, including one announced Wednesday.

After a series of congressional hearings into allegations of research fraud, a commission mandated by Congress last year recommended that ORI be given increased oversight powers. Fenderson, in fact, was one of the witnesses to testify before the panel, known as the Ryan Commission.

Its recommendations remain on the desk of HHS Secretary Donna E. Shalala, whose office has not responded to a Sun reporter's requests for comment. An internal HHS review concluded most of the recommendations should be adopted.

'Nothing happened'

"The committee acted and nothing happened," said Kenneth J. Ryan of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, who chaired the commission and acknowledges it was accused of going too far to protect whistle-blowers.

Fenderson began her scientific career in 1976 at Hopkins where she quickly gained the attention of Love, who hired her as a lab assistant to help pay her way through school. Love recalls the young woman from Pennsylvania Dutch country as unusually proficient in laboratory work.

After obtaining her bachelor's degree in natural sciences in 1979, she stayed on for two more years as a research associate while her husband, Bruce, continued his own studies at Hopkins. Then she went on to the University of Washington to earn a doctorate.

Fenderson moved with her husband and two children to Philadelphia, where he had landed a job, and she began post-doctoral work at Fox Chase.

In 1993 she was working with Irwin A. Rose, a senior research associate at Fox Chase and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, in research relating to the reactivity of enzymes. She had sought the assignment because it involved crystallography, her chosen field.

She soon became concerned that research being done by a technician was simply too good to be true. The results he was recording coincided nearly exactly with predictions made by Rose.

Fenderson, in testimony to the Ryan commission, said that at first she raised questions with Rose but was rebuffed. She turned next to her adviser at Fox Chase and in January 1994 to ORI. She was working under a $400,000 federal grant to Fox Chase. Rose, who has retired, has declined to comment on the case.

When word of her complaint got back to Fox Chase, the reaction was swift.

First, she said, she was told she was being fired. Though that was later reversed, Fenderson then found herself barred even from entering the laboratory where she had worked.

"I was relocated to a remote vacated room, where I felt exiled," Fenderson told the Ryan Commission at a hearing. She said she also was urged to drop her complaint to ORI and keep the matter "within the Fox Chase family."

Fenderson said that Fox Chase officials, after appointing an internal review committee, insisted to ORI that there had been no data falsification. And, she said, they attempted to cover up the evidence and mislead ORI. Although the technician was fired on May 3, 1994, Fox Chase President Robert C. Young said in a letter to ORI that the dismissal was unrelated to her complaint.

Proof is found

Ultimately ORI found incontrovertible proof. Backup copies of computer discs that Fox Chase officials had initially refused to examine but later turned over to ORI "showed direct evidence of back-calculation of data from results, which constitutes strong evidence of deceptive and/or fabrication of data," the ORI reported.

Not only that, the technician erased some of the computer records after Fenderson filed her charges. Referring to a statement by the technician, the ORI report concludes "his statement confirms that he knew and was responsible for the cover-up "

ORI was highly critical of Fox Chase. The Feb. 12 report cited the research center for failing immediately to open an inquiry into the charges; failing to notify the technician "in a timely manner" that he was the subject of a probe; and not allowing Fenderson to challenge the composition of the internal review committee.

ORI said Fox Chase officials showed "serious misjudgment" in treating the technician's admission of data falsification to a Fox Chase official as a "personnel matter."

ORI also concluded that Fox Chase officials did not even inform its internal review committee that the technician had admitted fabricating data.

Other charges leveled by Fenderson, the ORI report states, could not be fully examined because Fox Chase officials refused to cooperate with the ORI review.

Fox Chase was ordered to amend its policies and procedures "to protect the position and reputation of good faith whistle-blowers." ORI said that while the research center did take steps to protect Fenderson from retaliation -- such as rescinding the firing -- it was "not fully successful" in protecting her "position and reputation."

Love, the Hopkins professor, said he has asked ORI to reopen the case and consider additional published materials that contain suspect data not covered in the ORI review.

And, he said, merely asking for a corrective action plan was "totally inadequate. What they did to Fox Chase was zilch."

Chris B. Pascal, ORI's acting executive director, declined to respond to the criticism, stating he stands by the analysis and report.

Pub Date: 5/05/97

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