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Many caught in scientist's wake
People who worked with disgraced UNC-Chapel Hill professor say they are sullied by association


Dr. Steven Leadon resigned from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2003, and his lab was shut down.
Staff File Photo by Harry Lynch

By CATHERINE CLABBY, Staff Writer

It took repeated clues to convince Beth Ruggiero that her mentor, a UNC-Chapel Hill scientist, was a cheat.
Ruggiero could never execute a hotshot DNA test that Steven "Tony" Leadon invented. That felt wrong. Then the Ph.D. student discovered weird gaps in laboratory records and evidence that her test tubes had been tampered with.

After Ruggiero turned her professor in to the university, UNC scientists concluded that Leadon had rigged his lab results, possibly for seven years.

But it cost her. Starting a new thesis project in a new lab added years to completing her degree.

SCIENTIFIC FRAUD IN NORTH CAROLINA

Scientific fraud is not common, but it happens. Here are North Carolina cases that that federal investigators confirmed in recent years.

2005: Gary Kammer, a Wake Forest University rheumatologist and lupus expert, was found to have falsified research results included in a National Institutes of Health grant application. He resigned from the Winston-Salem campus and voluntarily agreed to exclude himself from receiving federal grants for three years.

2001: Zhenhai Yao Yao, a UNC-Chapel Hill physician and researcher, submitted grant applications to the National Institutes of Health and the Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. In it he included images that he described as rat cells but actually were images of chick cells. Yao agreed not to seek NIH research grants for five years.

2000: Joseph C. Hall, a N.C. State University biochemist, misrepresented his scientific publications in grant applications and a research progress report, the National Science Foundation said. Hall was barred from applying for grants for one year. Hall has described the reports as unintentional errors and said a post-doctoral student distorted his activities.


"Someone told me this was a victimless crime," said Ruggiero, but she'll never agree.

Four years after Ruggiero blew the whistle on Tony Leadon, the list of researchers and organizations scarred from ties to the molecular biologist keeps growing. The full financial toll of his misconduct is not yet tallied.

Last month, the prominent journal Science retracted its second article co-authored by Leadon. It was his fifth scientific paper corrected, retracted or otherwise officially placed in doubt. More may follow.

UNC could have to repay a portion of the nearly $2.6 million in National Institutes of Health research grants Leadon brought to the UNC medical campus between 1991 and 2002. That should be clear after the federal Office of Research Integrity finishes investigating the case, probably this year.

Leadon resigned in 2003. His lab was shut down and a one-time team of seven -- technicians, graduate students and a post-doctoral scientist -- scattered.

Reached recently by phone in Chapel Hill, Leadon, 52, refused to discuss the case against him. Previously he said it stemmed from a "misunderstanding." He said the UNC conclusions are false and the federal probe would vindicate him.

Some former collaborators strongly disagree. Priscilla Cooper, lead author of the recently retracted Science paper, said photographic evidence proves that Leadon's DNA studies were "faked" for their 1997 paper on Cockayne syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that causes premature aging.

"It's clear from looking at the records that different amounts of DNA were loaded to create results," said Cooper, a former friend of Leadon's based at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. "It's very, very devastating.