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March 16, 1995

Fisher named scientific director of NSABP

Pitt breast cancer researcher Bernard Fisher has won two victories this month:

* At this week's semiannual meeting of the National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project (NSABP) in San Diego, he was named the group's new scientific director. Fisher still has a lawsuit pending against Pitt and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in which he is seeking to regain his old job as NSABP chairperson. That position is now held by former Pitt professor Norman Wolmark of Allegheny General Hospital.

* Last week, Fisher won the first round of his legal fight against what he called "an unprecedented electronic smear campaign" against him by NIH.

Under an agreement reached by lawyers for NIH and Fisher, the federal agency agreed to remove from its Medline and Cancerlit databases the "scientific misconduct" tags that NIH had placed on 148 research papers written by Fisher and his colleagues.

NIH had electronically labeled the papers with warnings such as "scientific misconduct — data to be reanalyzed" last summer in the wake of disclosures that a Montreal surgeon had submitted falsified data to some studies by the National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project. NSABP is one of the largest government-funded cancer research projects.

Further investigation by officials at Pitt and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) found irregularities at 11 other NSABP sites. While it was Fisher who reported the Montreal irregularities, and while he has not been found guilty of scientific misconduct, in March 1994 Fisher was forced out as NSABP chairperson, the job he had held for 27 years.

Under last week's agreement between Fisher and NIH, the agency will not only remove the "scientific misconduct" tags on Fisher's research but also print a correction and an apology on the Medline computer network. Both Medline and Cancerlit are available through the Internet and are used by scientists worldwide.

A lawsuit by Fisher seeking damages against NIH for the electronic "graffiti" is expected to be heard this fall in U.S. District Court. Defendants named in the suit include the NIH and its director, Harold Varmus, the National Cancer Institute and its director Samuel Broder, and other federal officials.

"In his lawsuit, Dr. Fisher alleges that government officials intentionally violated the Privacy Act in order to smear his good name," said one of Fisher's attorneys, Robert Charrow, in a written statement. "Under the Privacy Act, federal agencies are prohibited from disseminating incorrect information about individuals in government databases. Dr. Fisher is seeking damages, a temporary restraining order and permanent injunctive relief." Charrow quoted Fisher as saying the database "tags" were not only false but could "adversely affect the care of women with breast cancer." At the March 14 Faculty Assembly meeting, Nathan Hershey of the Graduate School of Public Health called on Pitt science faculty to work through their professional organizations for a ban on what he called "database editorializing" by federal agencies at the expense of researchers who have not been found guilty of misconduct. Fisher was not the only NSABP researcher whose reputation was smeared by the NIH computer "tags," Hershey noted.

Hershey invited interested faculty to get in touch with him to help draft a proposal for a government policy banning unfair database tagging.

— Bruce Steele

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