Colleagues upset by Anderson sentence

Judge's decision to send gene therapy pioneer French Anderson to prison for 14 years is a "great loss for science"

Feb 5, 2007
Susan Warner
A California judge ignored pleas for leniency from scientists and supporters of W. French Anderson, the gene therapy pioneer convicted of molesting the teenage daughter of a research colleague at the University of Southern California, and sentenced Anderson Friday (February 2) to 14 years in prison."This is a great loss for science. It's a very sad day for science," Mary Ann Liebert, publisher of Human Gene Therapy, a journal founded by Anderson, told The Scientist.Lawrence Kedes, director of the USC Institute for Genetic Medicine, was among Anderson's supporters at the sentencing. Kedes, too, said Anderson's sentencing is a loss for science. "It really is a multiple tragedy for all the parties concerned."Anderson's wife Kathryn, in an interview with The Scientist, insisted her husband is innocent. She said Anderson has received what will amount to a death sentence when other inmates learn the nature of his conviction. "This is the destruction of a genius, a very naive person," said Kathryn Anderson, who is the retired chief of surgery at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles. Anderson, part of the team that conducted the nation's first gene therapy protocol in 1990, was convicted in July of repeatedly abusing the daughter of a colleague at USC's Keck School of Medicine. Following his conviction, Anderson resigned from USC, which had barred him from campus.Kedes told The Scientist Anderson's 2004 arrest and conviction had been a "mild distraction" at the medical school. Most of the several dozen scientists and students working directly with Anderson have now moved on to other positions. Kedes said gene therapy research at the medical school had already quieted before Anderson's arrest, although work is underway at the affiliated Childrens Hospital Los Angeles.The victim, now a 19-year-old college student, testified during the sentencing Friday that Anderson molested her for five years beginning when she was 9 or 10. The abuse occurred at Anderson's home where he was instructing the girl in Tae Kwon Do. The young woman said she was so distraught, she began to cut herself and contemplated suicide while she was in high school."I am going to have to live with this -- what he did to me -- every day for the rest of my life," she told the court.Anderson collected letters from dozens of supportive scientific colleagues, but Superior Court Judge Michael Pastor dismissed requests that Anderson be sentenced to probation while his conviction is under appeal. Kathryn Anderson said researchers offered to take Anderson on in projects to find treatments for multiple sclerosis and diabetes as a condition of probation. She declined to provide the names of scientists who had written on his behalf."I wish they had seen the evidence," the judge said of Anderson's backers.During the trial, prosecutors introduced a tape secretly recorded by the victim when she was 17. On the tape Anderson does not specifically acknowledge molesting the girl, but said, "Something inside me was evil."Pastor said Anderson used his intellectual power to coerce the girl into sexual activity. "It was aggravated, despicable misconduct as far as I'm concerned."The judge also ordered Anderson to pay more than $52,000 to the victim and her family to cover costs of therapy and an additional $16,000 in state restitution.Deputy District Attorney Cathryn Brougham told The Scientist the young woman is satisfied with the sentence. Anderson faced a maximum sentence of 18 years.Before joining the University of Southern California in 1992, Anderson spent 27 years as a researcher at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health. While there he inserted the adenosine deaminase gene via retrovirus into the T lymphocytes of a 4-year-old girl with severe combined immunodeficiency, or SCID. More recently, Anderson has focused on gene therapy delivery systems, including virus-based vectors to transfer genes and better vectors to insert genes into hematopoietic stem cells.To date, Anderson has published almost 400 articles and been profiled by a number of publications, including the New York Times and Scientific American.Susan Warner mail@the-scientist.comLinks within this articleW. French Anderson Gene Therapy Ganguli, "W French Anderson convicted," The Scientist, July 20 2006. McCook, "W. French Anderson arrested," The Scientist, August 5, 2004. Brenner, et al. "Gene marking to determine whether autologous marrow infusion restores long-term haemopoiesis in cancer patients," The Lancet, November 6 1993.