University of Washington AIDS researcher Che-Chung Tsai’s star is rising in the science world, thanks to recent groundbreaking results that offer hope of finding a powerful weapon against the deadly virus.
At the same time, Tsai is facing accusations of inaccuracy and misconduct by three of his former Medical Lake co-workers who suggest his research may be tainted by a desire to continue getting federal money.
Tsai, a Taiwan native and researcher at the UW’s Medical Lake Field Station since 1981, said he expects a UW review of his work will clear him of those charges.
He is counting on the review, due out soon, to remove doubts about his work so he can continue with federally funded AIDS projects.
He wants to keep studying PMPA, a drug that so far has proven extremely effective in halting the onset of SIV, the monkey version of AIDS.
Results of his PMPA tests were published in a recent issue of the journal Science, igniting worldwide interest both in the drug and the work of Tsai and his Medical Lake team.
The review of Tsai’s alleged misconduct was prompted by a series of letters and phone calls made to officials by former Medical Lake employees Linda Harrison and Terry Thompson.
Harrison had been medical records coordinator; Thompson worked as a lab technician. Both quit their jobs earlier this year.
Supporting most of their allegations is Curt Bartz, who was supervising veterinarian at Medical Lake from 1991 until 1994, when he resigned for medical reasons.
Thompson and Harrison are preparing to file a lawsuit against the university, saying they were forced out of their jobs after reporting violations to federal animal-care inspectors.
Some of those charges led to a complaint filed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The university agreed this year to improve veterinary care at the Medical Lake center, where about 1,100 primates are bred and used for research projects.
The ex-employees’ accusations about Tsai’s research practices also led to creation of a three-person UW panel that spent the past month examining the work he’s done at Medical Lake.
Tsai, 59, has been an AIDS researcher since the UW began developing HIV projects at its Medical Lake site about five years ago. Before becoming a U.S. citizen, he received training as a military doctor and pathologist.
If the misconduct panel rules against Tsai, the university stands to lose some or all of the roughly $3 million in federal money coming to Medical Lake each year, said William Morton, the UW’s acting primate center director.
Bartz, one of nearly a dozen people interviewed by the panel, said he doubts the UW will come down hard on Tsai.
“The university,” Bartz said, “won’t allow someone of minor importance to affect the millions of dollars they get from the federal government. That’s what they rely on.”
Morton disagreed. “I wasn’t part of the investigation (of Tsai), but the committee did a very thorough job and I’m sure they’ll produce a full report,” he said.
“And I’m hoping it’s very positive.”
In an action separate from the scientific misconduct issue, the UW also this year reviewed charges that Tsai used an immune-system suppresant, pristane, on monkeys without getting prior approval.
A UW animal-care committee ruled that Tsai had administered the drug incorrectly and ordered him to halt two minor AIDS-related projects for the next 12 months.
Tsai acknowledged using pristane without getting approval.
“I was very busy at the time, plus pristane is considered 100 times less toxic than (another drug) I was already allowed to use,” Tsai explained.
Tsai adamantly denies the other charges made against him by Thompson and Harrison, both of whom he calls “non-scientists” who don’t understand his work and its complexity.
Their key charges are that Tsai:
Minimized the negative effects suffered by monkeys who were getting an anti-viral test drug during AIDS projects in 1991.
Harrison and Thompson both insist Tsai’s remarks in published journals that the animals suffered only “minor to moderate skin lesions” are incomplete.
Both said many of the 18 monkeys given the anti-viral test drug suffered severe circulatory blood clots, heart damage and gangrenous tails.
Thompson said he performed tests and prepared slides of tissues from those animals after they were euthanized.
“I think he chose not to report (those conditions) because he was trying to show the drug’s efficacy,” Thompson said. “He didn’t want to show the drug had major bad side effects.”
Tsai said the test monkeys generally did not suffer those reactions and that his accusers are confusing them with other animals with full-blown SIV, the monkey virus similar to AIDS.
Acted improperly in using monkeys assigned to others at Medical Lake.
Harrison, whose job included tracking which animals were involved in projects, said Tsai injected pristane into an animal that belonged to another UW researcher without getting permission.
She said Tsai had requested that animal and others be reassigned to him for AIDS projects. “He went ahead, assuming he would get those animals for himself,” she said.
Tsai denied that charge, and the animal-care committee found no proof that it happened.
But Bartz said, “I’m sure Dr. Tsai did inject the drug into the other researcher’s monkey.” Whether it was “carelessness or opportunism, I can’t say, but it was typical of what I saw happening under his projects,” Bartz added.
Changed research animals from one project to another in violation of standard procedures.
Harrison and Thompson said Tsai used animals more than once, sometimes assigning them to one drug test, then switching them to another. That practice should invalidate any research data received.
Tsai said he never used the same animal for two different drug tests. He did acknowledge sometimes taking one monkey used as a control - one with an SIV infection but getting no drug to treat it - and then using it in a later test.
That would be permitted, he said, because the later test needed animals with proven SIV infections but who had not received any other test drugs. Researchers everywhere do that, he said.
Bartz agreed with Tsai on that practice, but he also said Tsai would sometimes arbitrarily change animals from one drug test to another, or would give animals mixtures of two chemicals instead of one.
“After coming here from the military, this was the most blatant example of sloppy and unusual procedures I’ve ever seen,” Bartz said.
Tsai and Morton insist that the Medical Lake AIDS projects have been reviewed by experts from around the country, and none has been flagged for being inaccurate or incomplete.
“For my article in Science this month, they had a group of peer reviewers ask me many, many questions. And I was able to answer every one,” Tsai said.
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