Scientists' feud in University of Minnesota cancer lab spills into courts

  • Article by: MAURA LERNER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 1, 2014 - 9:15 PM

In suit, fired scientist says boss failed to credit her for findings.

There was no sign of any bad blood when Olga Issaenko first started working in the cancer research lab at the University of Minnesota in 2009.

By all accounts, the job interview went so well that her new boss, Martina Bazzaro, went out of her way to boost her starting salary: to $42,000 a year as a research scientist.

But it didn’t take long for things to deteriorate. Within a year, Issaenko was out of a job. Ever since, the two scientists have been locked in a bitter feud that has prompted a restraining order, a retraction in a scientific journal and now a federal lawsuit.

Last week, Issaenko sued the university and Bazzaro, her former supervisor, saying they deprived her of credit for her research findings and undermined her career.

The U issued a brief statement, saying it is confident that Issaenko’s claims “are without merit.”

Court documents reveal that Issaenko, 43, was fired after only 10 months on the job, and that University Police became involved because of concerns about her “potentially dangerous behavior.”

But her own account suggests that Issaenko, who has a doctorate in biology, believed she was entitled to far more credit than she was given for her scientific contributions in Bazzaro’s lab.

She obtained copyrights on the charts and images she produced, and at one point demanded that Bazzaro remove them from a scientific manuscript unless she agreed “to properly assign my authorship.”

The lawsuit argues that the university violated her rights by using the data without her consent. “The infringement of her intellectual property rights has had a devastating effect on her and on her professional reputation,” said her attorney, Damon Ward.

Bazzaro, an assistant professor at the U’s Masonic Cancer Center, declined to comment. But the court files show how a professional relationship that began with high hopes unraveled to each side accusing the other of academic misconduct and personal threats.

All in the name of the war on cancer.

Dispute in the lab

Issaenko, a native of Russia, had worked at the university on and off for seven years when she heard about the opening at Bazzaro’s lab. By her own account, she had been “terminated” once before “without good cause” when working in the U’s genetics department. According to her lawsuit, in that case, too, a scientist used her work without crediting her contribution.

In September 2009 she joined Bazzaro’s lab, which was doing research on ovarian and cervical cancer cells as part of a national study.

Issaenko’s job was to help run the experiments and analyze the results, under Bazzaro’s supervision.

But within a few months, Issaenko says in her lawsuit, she started expanding and modifying experiments on her own initiative, with “little to no input” from her boss. She claims that Bazzaro refused to provide computer software and other support she needed to conduct the experiments. As a result, Issaenko says, she started borrowing equipment from other labs or working at home on the research, without Bazzaro’s knowledge.

Issaenko alleges that as a supervisor, Bazzaro was “evasive and abusive.” In March 2010, the suit says, Bazzaro yelled at Issaenko in front of others and followed her onto an elevator and into a lab, where she “smashed a plate” containing human cancer cells that “splashed into [Issaenko]’s face.”

Issaenko alleges that their final falling-out came after she discovered that Bazzaro planned to publish a study using Issaenko’s material without including her as an author.

A series of e-mails, included as exhibits in the suit, suggest that Bazzaro was losing patience with her junior scientist. In April, Issaenko asked if Bazzaro was sure she didn’t want to include a specific experiment in an upcoming manuscript. “Yes I am positive Olga,” Bazzaro replied. In June, in another exchange with Issaenko about the manuscript, Bazzaro wrote: “It is premature and quite frankly insulting from you to assume I would put unreliable data on a paper.”

After Issaenko lost her job July 1, she fired off a series of e-mails to Bazzaro’s superiors and fellow researchers, including the study’s chief scientist at Johns Hopkins University, raising concerns that her name was left off a manuscript that Bazzaro had submitted for publication. “I believe the intentions regarding these data are very clear — to publish/patent these data under Dr. Bazzaro’s sole authorship,” she wrote.

In August, Bazzaro discovered that Issaenko had included unpublished data in some of those external e-mails, and protested in an e-mail to U officials. “Unfortunately what I thought … was going to happen happened indeed,” she wrote. “Olga is distributing unpublished data from my laboratory. … She is pretending [these] are her data and she can do whatever she wants with it.”

In a separate e-mail, Bazzaro told her scientific collaborators that the data Issaenko had sent them “have not been validated and in some cases have been proved to be completely wrong.”

Restraining order, retraction

By that point, she added, Issaenko had been warned by University Police “not to communicate directly with me nor come anywhere near me” because of her “potentially dangerous behavior.”

Bazzaro eventually obtained a restraining order against Issaenko in March 2012, after reporting that she had received “at least 100 unwanted e-mails” from her former employee, some she described as scary. One listed “the five stages of dying,” according to court records; another said: “You might need protections. There is a knife for you, not me who is holding it, though.” Issaenko, in turn, alleges that Bazzaro once threatened to “destroy you.”

The conflict flared up again in December 2012, when Issaenko co-authored an article about the research in a scientific journal, Cell Cycle. After U officials protested to the publisher that “she was not authorized to submit manuscripts based on research or materials from Dr. Bazzaro’s laboratory,” the journal issued a retraction, which was later modified to an “expression of concern.”

In her lawsuit, filed Dec. 23, Issaenko argues that the university defamed her and damaged her reputation, and that it continues to use her copyrighted material without permission.

A university spokesman, however, says that in general, the university owns “the copyright on works created by U employees acting within the scope of their employment.”

The university’s legal office plans to examine the complaint closely, said spokesman Chuck Tombarge.

 

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384

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