The Summerlin Mouse Affair

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In April 1974, the world was shocked by a major scientific scandal at Sloan-Kettering Institute. For a long while this overshadowed what was happening with laetrile. The Summerlin painted-mouse affair was a bizarre story of cheating in high places that raised serious questions about the conduct of cancer research in general and about the honesty of Sloan-Kettering’s leaders in particular.

William T. Summerlin, MD, PhD was then a young dermatologist (b. 1938) with a very promising future. A protégé of Dr. Good, Summerlin had been brought onboard as a full member and made head of a clinical department at adjacent Memorial Hospital. Most researchers spent decades working their way up the ladder until they became full members (the equivalent of professor). Summerlin’s instant success stirred resentment at the Institute.

Summerlin had only half a dozen scientific papers to his credit. Summerlin’s éclat was due to a novel application of a technique known as tissue culturing. Starting in 1970 as a young teaching and training fellow at Stanford, the young doctor claimed to be able to take skin transplants from one individual and make them “stick” to another genetically unrelated individual. He did this by allegedly culturing the skin in a special medium for four to six weeks. Doing so, the samples appeared to lose their natural ability to provoke an immune response.

The entire thing turned out to be a fraudulent hoax – Summerlin just painted the alleged transplants on the mice with a magic parker.


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