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The Danger Zone : In the nation's top research lab a pregnant scientist discovers she's been dosed with radiation. But how? It's a bizarre mystery that points to foul play.

November 16, 1995|JOHN SCHWARTZ | THE WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — On or shortly before June 28, 1995, in a small conference room off a fifth-floor laboratory at the prestigious National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., someone acting in stealth and with malice did something evil.

That may be vague, but it is one of the few facts not in dispute in what some are calling the Chinese Karen Silkwood case, a bizarre mystery engulfing the nation's preeminent biomedical research facility.

The allegations defy credulity. A pregnant scientist--a highly skilled Chinese national here on a research visa--claims in a legal complaint that her food was deliberately poisoned with a radioactive isotope to induce an abortion or to scare her into seeking one. In her view, the most likely culprit was her boss, who she says was under pressure to complete a research project that might have been delayed if she had taken maternity leave. On several previous occasions, she says, he had urged her to abort.

The supervisor, a widely respected researcher, indignantly denies it all. He never complained about her pregnancy, he says, never urged an abortion and certainly never adulterated her food. Current and former colleagues have hustled to his defense with letters and statements attesting to his integrity.

But still: The woman was undeniably contaminated with radioactivity. It remains in her body--although in what concentration and at what peril to her and her fetus are under debate.

Worse, whatever happened was no accident. Traces of the isotope were found in and around the water cooler in the lab--a contamination investigators feel certain indicates foul play. Twenty-six other workers who drank from the cooler were also contaminated, though in lower doses.

Clearly, someone poisoned someone.

Clearly, someone is lying, or there has been a catastrophic misunderstanding.

And clearly, the NIH's vaunted scientific community is blinking nervously under a spotlight far harsher than it is accustomed to. That is because underlying everything is this: For many NIH researchers, even those who did not know the participants, the allegations instantly touched a nerve. They sounded outrageous, scurrilous, illogical, but somehow not entirely implausible.

Research science is no longer the genteel, ivory-tower pursuit it once was. Dwindling appropriations for research mean that fewer projects get funded, and the only thing that seems to grow is uncertainty for scientists and their staffs. Meanwhile, the push to commercialize discoveries has turned some labs into shark tanks, fiercely competitive for grants, for publicity, for results. Scientists swap stories at the NIH and other research institutions of people sabotaging competitors' experiments, of fudging data to get desired results. Might such competitive pressures also induce someone to commit a desperate, or twisted, act?

This month evidence surfaced suggesting other recent radiation-contamination cases, in other cities, tantalizingly similar to this one.

The NIH, FBI, Nuclear Regulatory Commission and a congressional subcommittee are trying to figure out what really happened to scientist Maryann Wenli Ma, 31, dosed somehow with an isotope of phosphorus called P-32. The investigation is slow and, so far, without results.

"Unfortunately," said one of the army of investigators working on the case, "we didn't stop a car with somebody leaving the scene with a vial of P-32."

Ground Zero

The scene of the crime is the Laboratory of Molecular Pharmacology, found in the NIH's Building 37. It is part of a nondescript complex of three structures that house the laboratories of several Nobel laureates and the campus day-care center.

The fifth floor could be mistaken for a lab building in any college, with its white linoleum tile flecked with black and its harsh fluorescent lights. Turning into Hallway 5D, a visitor passes a locked room with a radiation warning--and a new handwritten sign: "This door stays shut. All the time. AND LOCKED." After the contamination incident, the NIH tightened its radiation handling rules; all materials must be locked up, even if a scientist is leaving the lab only momentarily.

Room 5D18 is an L-shaped office with a few tables for computers and a central bench for experimental work. As you enter the lab, the computers used by Ma and her husband, Bill Wenling Zheng, sit on a desk to the right, idle--the FBI removed the hard drives--just outside the door to John Weinstein's private office. Down Corridor D is a bare spot where the contaminated water cooler once stood.

Ma and Zheng came to Weinstein's lab in 1994. They were academic stars in China; Ma was named one of the 100 outstanding young scientists in her country. Being named to two-year fellowships at the NIH could be a ticket to a prestigious career upon their return to China, or perhaps a new life in America.

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