WASHINGTON, D.C.--As the sole witness for 3 hours of questioning on embryo research, Harold Varmus, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), endured a grilling on Capitol Hill today before the House subcommittee on oversight and investigations. This panel, formerly headed by the dread interrogator Representative John Dingell (D-MI), is now chaired by a low-keyed Republican from Texas, Representative Joe Barton. Although Barton called it a "friendly hearing," he warned that the panel would be "much more unfriendly" if Varmus failed to respond to the panel's concerns by tightening oversight procedures and taking new steps to block the use of NIH funds for embryo research.
Panel members had called the hearing because of a controversy involving Mark Hughes, a former NIH geneticist accused of conducting forbidden embryo-related research on the NIH campus in 1994 and 1995. Varmus charged that Hughes had violated a ban on such research in 1995 and that House members were right in branding Hughes a "renegade researcher." Hughes conducted diagnostic studies of DNA from single human cells, but these cells in a few cases were extracted from embryos created in non-NIH clinics for use in artificial impregnation procedures. Hughes never handled entire embryos at NIH, which severed all ties with him in October 1996. But--to the astonishment of the House panel--Varmus claimed that he had been in the dark about Hughes's alleged misdeeds until the details surfaced in the newspapers in January 1997. "It was unfortunate," Varmus said. "My people assumed that someone else had [told me]" about the Hughes controversy, but no one had.
Varmus conceded that communication among NIH staffers had been poor, and that other oversight failures had occurred as well. For example, Varmus said that NIH should have moved more rapidly to ask the inspector-general of the Department of Health and Human Services to investigate Hughes. (NIH waited more than 3 months after being alerted to trouble in his lab by staffers.) Varmus agreed that NIH should have done a better job of monitoring Hughes's use of NIH-funded research postdocs, several of whom engaged in forbidden research. Varmus and Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, confessed that NIH had erred in publishing a research brochure that suggested Hughes would be involved in in vitro fertilization research while at NIH. And Varmus acknowledged that about $1 million worth of NIH lab equipment was loaned to Hughes when he moved off campus in 1996; about $26,000 worth has not yet been recovered.
Hughes did not appear at the hearing. But he said in an interview with Science that he did not knowingly violate the ban on embryo research. In a statement released by his lawyer, Scott Gant of Crowell and Moring in Washington, D.C., Hughes says: "The NIH leadership may believe that they expressly told me in person that my [embryo DNA analysis] was barred by the general ban on embryo research, but that is not my recollection. ..." Furthermore, he says, "I was never given any written statements or policies indicating that I could no longer do my [DNA analysis] work." To this day, Hughes argues that he did nothing wrong.