Because of an editing error, a statement in an article yesterday on Dr. Howard J. Eisen was incorrectly attributed to both Laura Eisen and Dr. Daniel W. Nebert. It should have been attributed to Laura Eisen; Nebert declined to be interviewed. (Published 2/15/87)

Dr. Howard J. Eisen, a respected scientist at the National Institutes of Health, committed suicide at his Bethesda home last week while under pressure from an investigation he helped initiate of alleged scientific fraud by a coworker.

The suicide has shocked the NIH community and outraged some scientists there, who think that the stress of the investigation triggered Eisen's death. They view it as a case of the system making a responsible scientist suffer even though he acted aggressively to uncover possible dishonesty in his laboratory. Eisen's friends and family acknowledged that his personality -- he was intensely idealistic and unusually sensitive -- made him vulnerable. But they said they think that the high-powered scientific bureaucracy of NIH contributed to the pressure Eisen felt.

"There is no question in my mind that his death was related to the investigation," said his widow, Laura, a research associate in chemistry at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, the military medical school in Bethesda. "Somehow he considered it as just an investigation of the whole lab . . . . He said over and over again, 'Why is this happening to me?' "

Eisen took his own life Feb. 7, 10 days after appearing before an NIH committee investigating possible fraud in a paper on genetics research that had been submitted for publication in a scientific journal. The primary researcher on the project was Alok Bandyopadhyay, a guest researcher who worked for several months last year under Eisen, a section chief in the laboratory of developmental pharmacology at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

The NIH yesterday released a statement acknowledging that an investigation was under way to determine whether some of the data in the paper were "fabricated or nonexistent."

"No allegations were made against Dr. Howard Eisen, who . . . encouraged and cooperated fully in the investigation," the statement said.

Michaela Richardson, an NIH information officer, said "I don't think it would be fair to say that he killed himself as a direct result of the inquiry going on." NIH officials declined further comment.

According to Laura Eisen, Bandyopadhyay was hired last summer by Dr. Daniel W. Nebert, chief of the developmental pharmacology branch and Eisen's boss. Bandyopadhyay, working in Eisen's laboratory, performed the experiments reported in the paper, which involved inserting a gene into yeast cells so as to make the cells manufacture a certain protein.

Laura Eisen said Nebert wrote the paper, using Bandyopadhyay's research data, and Eisen reviewed it. As is common in research, all three scientists were listed as authors, with Bandyopadhyay as the first author.

Scientists familiar with the incident said the paper was submitted to the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Scientific journals routinely assign papers to other scientists for review prior to publication. In this case, according to sources, the researchers assigned by the journal as "referees" noticed discrepancies in the manuscript and sent the paper back with inquiries. When Eisen looked more closely at the data he began to suspect fraud, according to his widow and associates.

They said Eisen came to believe that Bandyopadhyay had failed to get the experiment to work and had altered his samples to make it appear that he had succeeded. They said that when confronted by his superiors with discrepancies in the data, Bandyopadhyay was unable to explain them.

Nebert and Laura Eisen said her husband then tried to verify Bandyopadhyay's resume and bibliography, and found what they believed to be false information about his prior jobs and cited publications. Bandyopadhyay was fired from his NIH job last fall, according to Richardson, information officer for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Repeated attempts to reach Bandyopadhyay yesterday were unsuccessful. A relative said he was not in town and declined to say where he was.

Scientists who knew Eisen said that he was upset that the incident had occurred in his laboratory and wanted to disqualify Bandyopadhyay from getting government research grants in the future.

"My husband was very honest. {The incident} bothered him very much," Laura Eisen said. "It also bothered him" that he did not detect the problem sooner, she said.

"He was upset, of course . . . but glad that it was uncovered. He was pleased with himself," said Jeffrey Harmon, an associate professor of pharmacology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences who had collaborated with Eisen on other research.

Eisen and Nebert set in motion an official investigation by the NIH deputy director for intramural research. A committee of two NIH scientists and one outside scientist was charged with determining whether data in the experiment had been fabricated.

It was during the committee's first hearing, on Jan. 28, that something apparently happened to Howard Eisen. Laura Eisen said Bandyopadhyay and his lawyer did not show up for the hearing. Eisen had to face the panel's questions alone.

Laura Eisen said her husband went home from the hearing "panicked."

"He was very upset that there might be even the supposition that he had done something wrong," she said. "He was rapidly not seeing things as clearly as he might. I think the facts are going to be very hard to determine. Different people will have different things to say."

Scientists involved in the investigation would not comment on the hearing, but Eisen's friends said he became deeply depressed in the week following it. Last Saturday, he killed himself. Laura Eisen declined to say how. Maryland authorities declined comment, pending completion of a medical examiner's report.

"I suspect that whatever happened at that meeting was an accident, that something snapped inside his head," Harmon said. "Some of us respond to stress with heart attacks . . . . This was a man who was programmed to respond the way he did. It's a tragedy."

Laura Eisen and friends of Howard Eisen said those conducting the hearing may have failed to recognize Eisen's mental state. "What happened was that a real good scientist was destroyed," said a colleague. "I think he was not healthy enough to have gone through this . . . . It may not have been conducted in as sensitive a manner as it might have been."

Scientists who knew Eisen characterized him as a brilliant researcher, dedicated to scientific inquiry and unselfish in helping colleagues. "He was kind of a sweet, bearish guy, very soft, very sensitive to other people . . . very different from most of us at NIH, who have survived this system and are kind of egotistical and competitive," said Dr. David C. Klein, a close friend at NIH.

Klein said Eisen's most important scientific contribution was in purifying and studying the cellular receptors for glucocorticoids, hormones important in many aspects of the body's metabolism and response to stress. Eisen was instrumental in isolating the gene that codes for these receptors.

Laura Eisen said she and her children had received an outpouring of sympathy from her husband's fellow scientists, some of whom have vowed to find out, if possible, what triggered his suicide.

"I know that he was completely devoted to the process and the ethics of science," said Dr. Robert Wittes, associate director for cancer therapy evaluation at the National Cancer Institute, who had known Eisen since college.

"As long as I've known him, he's a guy who really cared about getting to the bottom of things. I just trust him . . . . This whole thing is an absolute disaster."