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MIT professor is fired over fabricated data

MIT has fired an associate professor of biology for fabricating data in a published scientific paper, in unpublished manuscripts, and in grant applications, the university announced yesterday.

Luk Van Parijs, 35, who was considered a rising star in the field of immunology research, admitted to the wrongdoing, said Alice Gast, associate provost and vice president for research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His employment was terminated on Wednesday, she said in an interview.

The university said the work in question was done after Van Parijs started at MIT in 2000, but the school refused to identify the paper that contained the fabricated data, citing ongoing work being done to correct the scientific record. However, a scientific journal published an erratum in May 2005, stating that the authors of a 2004 journal article, of which Van Parijs was the senior author, were unable to document an impressive claim involving the genetic modification of mice.

The investigation of Van Parijs's work is now expanding to where he worked before MIT, with the California Institute of Technology looking into research he did and Brigham and Women's Hospital weighing how to respond. The MIT investigation, which lasted 14 months, determined that none of his coauthors was guilty of any misconduct, Gast said.

In an e-mail sent to the Globe last night from his MIT account, Van Parijs said, ''I was shocked at the timing and manner in which MIT made the announcement since I had cooperated with the investigation to the fullest of my capabilities."

Cases in which professors are terminated for research fraud are very infrequent, said Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel of the American Council on Education, who estimated that only a handful come along in a decade.

The revelations are a serious blow to MIT, which prides itself on its reputation as a scientific powerhouse. The announcement also serves to answer the rumors that have been swirling on the campus since Van Parijs vanished from the campus more than a year ago and had his lab disbanded without any comment from the university. Until then, his career had been highly promising, including being hired as a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of famed Nobel laureate David Baltimore.

''He was a very personally attractive, excited, and thoughtful guy who cared about a wide range of science," Baltimore, now president of the California Institute of Technology, said in an interview yesterday. ''When I first heard there was a question about his work, it came as a very great surprise to me."

The investigation began in August 2004, when a group of researchers in Van Parijs's laboratory brought their concerns to university administrators. MIT said Van Parijs quickly admitted fabricating data, as well as falsifying data, which means changing it in a misleading way. The confidential investigation was conducted by MIT scientists whom Gast declined to name. Van Parijs was placed on paid administrative leave in September 2004, and did not have access to his lab, she said.

Gast praised the scientists who made the initial allegations, saying that the university depends on all of its members to defend the integrity of research, even if it means the awkwardness of challenging friends and colleagues.

''I think this is a real tribute to their courage," said Gast. ''I think that this shows we have an environment here where people are comfortable doing that. The university is very pleased that they did."

A native of Belgium, Van Parijs received his undergraduate education at Cambridge University in England and did his graduate work at Harvard. He worked in the lab of Dr. Abul Abbas at Brigham and Women's Hospital for three or four years, until about 1997, according to Abbas, now chairman of the pathology department at the University of California, San Francisco. Abbas said he did not see any indication at the time that Van Parijs might falsify data. He said he is talking with people at Brigham and Women's Hospital to decide whether to investigate the work Van Parijs did while in Abbas's lab.

After finishing graduate school, Van Parijs did postgraduate work with Baltimore, briefly at MIT and then at Caltech from 1998 to 2000.

''He got a job and finished his postdoc training much faster than average people," said Xiao-Feng Qin, who worked on the same laboratory bench as Van Parijs at Caltech and is now an assistant professor in immunology at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. ''I think people thought he was a golden boy, because he finished so fast."

Van Parijs joined the biology department at MIT in 2000 and also had an appointment at the MIT Center for Cancer Research. He had not earned tenure.

Van Parijs was known for his work on the immune system, which fights off disease. His research focused on the biological mechanisms that regulate the development and functions of immune cells and the ways that this can be changed. He was particularly interested in diseases in which the immune system attacks the body, such as juvenile diabetes, a devastating disorder in which the immune system attacks the cells that make insulin. He did his research in mice.

After coming to MIT, Van Parijs had begun to work with RNA interference, a tool used to modify the way a cell works by blocking the function of genes. In 2003, he and coauthors published an important paper in the journal Nature Genetics that showed that RNA interference could be used in a wide variety of cells in a living animal. He is listed as an author on papers in a variety of top scientific journals.

In May the journal Current Opinion in Molecular Therapeutics published a correction that says Van Parijs's team was ''unable to provide clear documentation" of an assertion made in an article the previous year. That article said they had found a way to use a virus to do two things at once: make the blood of a mouse cancerous and block the actions of specific genes to see how that would affect the cancer. Doing so would be a boon for cancer research, because it would make it easier to study blood cancers in mice. The article in which the assertion was made was a review of work in RNA interference and not a detailed description of the experiment.

Caltech is currently examining two papers Van Parijs authored while a postdoctoral fellow in Baltimore's lab, Baltimore said. Both were published in the journal Immunity.

Gast said that MIT is working with his coauthors on retracting published errors and that all of Van Parijs's colleagues have been very cooperative. The university is also preparing a report to the US Office of Research Integrity, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services that investigates scientific misconduct involving federal funds, so that it can perform its own investigation. She said the university immediately stopped the spending on his grants when the problem was discovered, and would work with the government to determine what money needed to be returned.

A spokesman for the National Institutes of Health, which helped fund his research, declined to comment yesterday.

Liz Kowalczyk of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Gareth Cook can be reached at cook@globe.com. Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@globe.com.

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