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Getting the Facts Right

In catching up on some reading during the holidays, I came across Bruce Pittman’s commentary on the Biotech Revolution [“Space and the Hunt for the Killer App,” Nov. 7, 2005, page 19]. Having reported since 1999 on the cell culturing device known as the Bioreactor (formerly known as rotating wall vessel ) , which was invented and developed at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in the mid-1980s, I certainly agree with him about the potential of biological research in the microgravity environment of space to benefit people on Earth — the keys to new treatments and cures for diseases lie up there. But there were significant factual errors in his article.

Pittman cites astronaut David Wolf and Neal Pellis [misspelled in the article] as responsible for the “[p]ioneering work” that demonstrated the potential for “microgravity biotech.” While he does eventually acknowledge engineers Ray Schwarz and Tinh Trinh along with Wolf as inventors of Bioreactor hardware, noting they were honored as NASA JSC’s Inventors of the Year (1992), the fourth member of the original, pioneering team — Thomas J. Goodwin — is conspicuously absent, particularly given the gist of this commentary.

As the biologist-physiologist who developed the tissue engineering applications and techniques for the Bioreactor under the original project manager, Charles D. “Andy” Anderson, Goodwin first achieved the results in the mid-1980s that led to the development of the Bioreactor for three-dimensional biology in space as well as on the ground.

Also honored as NASA’s JSC Inventor of the Year (1993) for his groundbreaking research , Goodwin has since written some 15 U.S. patents that describe this field. He has been instrumental in designing many of the space studies conducted by outside investigators and, as the only scientist to have been with NASA’s Bioreactor Program from the beginning to its end last year, has worked tirelessly to advance the technology.

With all due respect to Pellis, he is not one of the pioneers of this technology and his name does not appear on any of the patents. Pellis was brought into JSC in 1995 to serve as project manager of the Biotechnology Program nearly a decade after the original patents were granted. Moreover, he has not done any laboratory bench work to speak of while in any of the administrative roles he has held at NASA.

Additionally, Pittman discusses the research of Timothy Hammond and identifies him as a transplant surgeon. In fact, Hammond, who earned his Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Science in Australia, is board certified in the United States to practice nephrology and internal medicine, not surgery.

Pittman mentions StelSys [Stelsys in the article] as “the entrepreneurial arm of Johnson & Johnson.” StelSys, for which Hammond was a paid consultant, was a Baltimore-based biotech start-up co-founded by Fisk Johnson, president of Fisk Ventures and a fifth-generation Johnson, of S.C. Johnson & Co.

While the kidney cell work is interesting, if Pittman’s goal was to promote this new field and its potential, a significant error of omission would be other more high-profile research. The prostate cancer research conducted by Goodwin and world-renowned cancer researcher Lelund Chung of Emory University on the Columbia’s last flight (STS-107) is arguably far more relevant to Pittman’s cause of commercialization — not to mention that work has been published.

Had Pittman bothered to do his homework, he could have learned all this and more. It is unclear who Pittman’s source s are since no one is quoted directly, but in these fiercely competitive days when trust, honor and truth seem to be slipping by the wayside, it is up to all of us who care about the future of space science and write in this milieu — whether trained as an investigative journalist or not — to be ever vigilant about getting the facts right, giving appropriate credit where due and never assuming hearsay is truth.

A.J.S. Ray, Malibu Calif.