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Pearlie Epling-Burnette in her former lab at the Moffitt Cancer Center.

Pearlie Epling-Burnett

Fired cancer scientist says ‘good people are being crushed’ by overzealous probes into possible Chinese ties

One of Pearlie Epling-Burnette’s students expects to receive her Ph.D. in cancer biology this spring from the University of South Florida. But Epling-Burnett won’t be there to help the student defend her dissertation, the last step before earning her diploma. That’s because, on 19 December 2019, the Moffitt Cancer Center told Epling-Burnette it would fire her unless she resigned immediately.

According to Moffitt, Epling-Burnette and five other senior scientists got the boot because they were involved in collaborations with institutions in China that “violated multiple Moffitt policies and federal grant standards.” But the 59-year-old Epling-Burnette, an immunologist who began working at Moffitt in 1988 and held its equivalent of tenure, disputes that conclusion.

In an exclusive interview with ScienceInsider, she says she is being blamed for things that never happened. Her actions violated no federal or institutional policies, she asserts. All her dealings with China, she adds, fell within the scope of a longstanding joint venture between Moffitt and Tianjin Medical University Cancer Institute and Hospital (TMUCIH), for which Tianjin pays Moffitt $500,000 annually. And she says everything was done with Moffitt’s knowledge and consent.

Moffett declined to respond to Epling-Burnette’s comments, saying only that it “stands behind the findings of its investigation.” (See a summary of those findings beginning on p. 20 of this document.)

Fallout from NIH pressure?

Epling-Burnette believes she and her former Moffitt colleagues, including a former CEO and its head of research, are the victims of an overly aggressive campaign by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to enforce existing rules that require scientists to disclose outside sources of research funding on grant applications. NIH has sent letters to more than 60 institutions inquiring about the conduct of almost 200 researchers getting agency funding. Many of the letters concern interactions with institutions in China, NIH has said.

At a handful of U.S. institutions, including MD Anderson Cancer Center, the letters have led to the ouster of researchers alleged to have violated NIH reporting rules. But Moffitt, which in 2018 received $36 million from NIH, says it did not receive any such letters.

Still, Epling-Burnette thinks the cancer center acted in hopes of staying in NIH’s good graces. “These institutions live in absolute fear of NIH and worry that, if they don’t go overboard in taking action, NIH might cut them off,” she says. “But good people are being crushed in the process.”

Epling-Burnette, who since 2001 has also worked as a research biologist at the Tampa Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), says she has no plans to sue Moffitt. (On 13 February, Thomas Sellers, the former head of research, sued Moffitt and a former colleague for defamation and for damaging his ability to make a living as a researcher.) Epling-Burnette has hired a lawyer to help broadcast her message that these investigations pose a threat not just to those caught up in them, but to the entire U.S. research enterprise—and to the country.

“I had 14 people in my lab, and in one day their lives were totally disrupted,” she says. “And I think the long-term harm [from such investigations] is going to be astronomical. It’s hard enough now to recruit people into academic science, given the funding challenges. And this is making things even worse. There’s also the downstream impact because we are the ones who educate the next generation of Ph.D. students and physicians.”

Pearlie Epling-Burnette (left) with Lanzhu Yue, a former postdoc in her lab

Pearlie Epling-Burnett

1000 Talents allegation

One core finding of the Moffitt investigation is that Epling-Burnette was accepted into Thousand Talents, a Chinese program aimed at recruiting top scientists from around the world, and then hid her involvement. But she says neither assertion is correct.

The reality, she says, is that in 2012 or 2013 she applied to Thousand Talents because she was told it would improve her chances of getting NIH to fund a collaborative project with a former student who was returning to China. The two scientists wanted to explore the idea that differences in the activity of telomerase, an enzyme that protects chromosome ends, in T cells could explain the large disparity in the average age of onset of a type of leukemia between Chinese and U.S. patients.

Epling-Burnette says she was told that obtaining a Thousand Talents award would be a signal to both U.S. and Chinese institutions “that I was definitely going to spend time on this NIH-China collaboration. … It also would have committed [a hospital in Tianjin] to set aside space and equipment so that the work could be done there.”

But NIH did not fund the proposal, which would have been part of an ongoing collaborative program in cancer research between NIH and its Chinese equivalent. “And after that,” she says, “the idea [of participating in Thousand Talents] was dead. And I was never considered for any other type of position in China.”

“I have no idea …”

Epling-Burnette also disputes two other assertions in the Moffitt report. The first is that she had been accepted in Thousand Talents sometime in 2015 and then approved the transfer of some $85,000 from the program to the hematology department at TMUCIH. The second is that, in 2018, TMUCIH set up a bank account for her, with an initial balance of $35,000 and the promise that it would grow to $70,000.

Neither claim is true, she says. And she rejects the implication that she went behind her employer’s back in establishing a professional relationship with a Chinese institution that would benefit her financially.

“I never had the authority to do anything like that, and I was never in the Thousand Talents program to begin with,” she says. “So, I have no idea how that could have taken place.”

Epling-Burnette does acknowledge receiving $7000 from TMUCIH. But she says the money was reimbursement for a Moffitt-approved activity: Celebrating the 10th anniversary of Moffitt’s joint venture with TMUCIM in November 2018 by participating in a week of activities in Tianjin that involved dozens of Moffitt scientists. She had made three earlier trips to Tianjin under the joint venture, she says, and each time she bought her plane ticket and was reimbursed, in cash, at some point during the visit.

In planning the 2018 trip, she was told TMUCIH had changed its accounting practices and that she would be reimbursed later, via a debit card drawn on a Tianjin bank. She received the card, and when she returned to Tampa she withdrew $7000 to recoup the price of her roundtrip business-class ticket. (She had to withdraw the money in weekly $400 increments because of bank rules.)

“He told me …”

Epling-Burnette says she learned about these financial arrangements through Sheng Wei, a senior immunologist at Moffitt who was also fired in the December 2019 purge. In its summary report, Moffitt calls Wei “a key interface” in the joint venture and says he “recruited” Epling-Burnette and three other Moffitt scientists into the Thousand Talents Program. (Wei, a graduate of Tianjin Medical University, is believed to be in China and could not be reached for comment.)

“He suggested I apply [to Thousand Talents] and handled the application,” she says, adding that Wei later “told me many times that I had not been accepted.” More recently, she adds, “he told me the program had been shut down.”

Shortly after the 2018 trip, Epling-Burnette says, Wei told her the bank card might contain as much as $35,000, with the additional money earmarked for future travel and honoraria for any services under the joint venture. She says she was unable to verify the balance on the card when she made withdrawals and asked Wei to do so.

When he could not, she says, she contacted Moffitt’s compliance office to request a meeting to discuss the matter. She also submitted a conflict-of-interest disclosure form listing $35,000 as the possible value of the relationship. The meeting eventually took place in November 2019. But it also involved lawyers from an outside firm that Moffitt had hired to investigate whether its employees had failed to disclose ties to the Thousand Talents program.

During that meeting, Epling-Burnette says she was shown documents relating to the transfer of funds in 2015 and the bank account set up in 2018. It was the first time she had seen those documents, she says, which the lawyers suggested were proof of her wrongdoing. And her signature on one of the documents appears to have been forged, she says.

Epling-Burnette did not provide ScienceInsider with any documents to support her claims. Her lawyer, John Lauro, says that is because all the communication was done electronically and that she is no longer allowed to access those emails.

Collateral damage

None of the scientists that Moffitt booted out has been accused of stealing intellectual property or transferring it to Chinese colleagues. And Epling-Burnette has not been accused of violating NIH reporting rules. (She has been a principal investigator on four NIH R01 grants—a mainstay of academic research—awarded between 2004 and 2013.)

Still, she fears the Moffitt investigation will impugn the reputations of the Chinese postdocs who worked in her lab as part of the joint agreement with TMUCIH. She has hosted four (three M.D.s and a Ph.D.) since 2010, with Tianjin selecting them and paying half of their salary; Epling-Burnette used institutional funds or money from other research projects to pay the rest.

“These investigations leave the impression that they have been involved in some nefarious activity,” she says. “But that’s not correct, and it’s unfair for people to think that.”

Many of the people in her former lab are now confronting wrenching changes, Epling-Burnette says. (None agreed to speak with ScienceInsider.) One of her four graduate students, for example, just aced his qualifying exams and “his project is really phenomenal,” she says. “But they said he had to drop that project, switch labs, and start over.” Another “is really struggling” to meet the program requirements, and Epling-Burnette wishes she could help him find his way.

A third graduate student has been taken on by a Moffitt colleague with whom Epling-Burnette had been collaborating. “She’s been allowed to continue her project, which has been going on for 3 years,” Epling-Burnette says. “But I will not be allowed to participate in her qualifying exams, or anything going forward.”

Her lack of access to the student on the brink of earning her Ph.D. is especially galling to Epling-Burnette. “We’ve worked together for 6 years, and it would kill me if I’m not allowed to go to her thesis defense,” she says.

“I love working at Moffitt”

Despite her abrupt departure, Epling-Burnette has managed to make a relatively smooth transition to a professional life without Moffitt. Although she now has “no access … to any aspect of my research” that was done at the cancer center, in January she was awarded a 5-year, $1.5 million grant from the VA to continue another line of research.

During a recent interview, Epling-Burnette struggled to explain how she’s both grateful that Moffitt gave her a chance to pursue a career she loves and sad that her long-time employer didn’t treat her with more respect.

“It’s very important for me to make clear that I love working at Moffitt,” she says, speaking of her former employer in the present tense. “I come from a family with a disadvantaged background, and it’s been an absolute honor to have worked at Moffitt.”

But at the same time, she laments what she characterizes as the adversarial tone of the Moffitt investigation. (FBI agents knocked on her door at 7 a.m. in an unannounced visit to her home 2 days before she lost her job, she notes.) “I was never given the opportunity to explain what was really going on,” she says. “And that is disappointing, especially after all the years I have devoted to Moffitt.”