By Nicola Jones
A scientist involved in efforts to lab-grow meat for consumption, and human organs for medicine, has been suspended and his lab closed pending a "human resources" investigation.
Vladimir Mironov was put on indefinite paid leave by the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) in Charleston on February 11 for "a series of issues," the university said. It is not clear whether or when the lab, which also housed a postdoc and two visiting scholars, might reopen.
Mironov was part of a team working on a $20-million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to help build capacity in South Carolina in "biofabrication"--building organs for medical use by "printing" out biological material. The money is going towards hiring people and building research infrastructure, says the University of South Carolina's vice president of research Stephen Kresovich, who administers the grant. The university says the grant is not affected by Mironov's suspension.
Mironov, who was slated to be director of a new Advanced Tissue Biofabrication Center in the Department of Regenerative Medicine and Cell Biology at MUSC, was helping to coordinate some of grant distribution. An official statement from MUSC's public-affairs spokeswoman Heather Woolwine says that "Mironov's conceptual vision for biofabrication was important in developing the concept of the [NSF] Project."
But Mironov says he feels he wasn't getting enough financial support for his lab or enough input into how the grant was being used. At a grant meeting on February 7-8 in particular, he says he felt that his views were being squashed by one of the grant's co-principal investigators, Scott Little, who is also director of the South Carolina Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research and the Institutional Development Awards office.
Mironov sent a very strongly worded, accusatory email of complaint to Little, disinviting him from participating in a panel that Mironov convened for the 2011 American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Washington, D.C., on February 21. Mironov says he accidentally hit "reply all," sending this e-mail to a list of more than 100 people.
Nature asked Little about the e-mail, and the disagreement with Mironov. He responded that "the personnel matter at issue is not related to the $20-million NSF award. Discussing this matter would be counterproductive to resolution."
After a subsequent meeting with the new dean of MUSC's College of Medicine Etta Pisano, Mironov says he went for voluntary psychiatric evaluation, where he received a letter from Pisano notifying him of his suspension.
MUSC has declined to comment on the case until its investigation is concluded "given the confidential nature of the case," says Woolwine. It is unclear what the issues under investigation are. Mironov's lawyer Allan Holmes says that the whole thing is a misunderstanding. "I think it's just an over-reaction. I hope it will all be over in just a short period of time," he says.
Mironov isn't so hopeful. "It looks like I will be fired very soon," he wrote to Nature. "I just want to have the opportunity to continue my research."
The lab closure mostly affects Mironov's other research focus: trying to grow meat in the lab--a goal that some scientists think could help to feed the world's growing population with less strain on the environment (see "A taste of things to come?"). Mironov, like others in the same field, has had trouble getting funding for that work--he had a $25,000 grant years ago from the animal-rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which is interested in the prospect of producing meat without killing livestock. He has worked with turkey cells in his lab, has come up with a novel idea for how to exercise lab-grown muscle and says he has designed a better bioreactor, although the details are not public.
PETA recently gave postdoc Nicholas Genovese a three-year grant to work on lab-grown meat, and he started working in Mironov's lab in December as a visiting scholar. Mironov's suspension caught Genovese by surprise, he says, and has left him locked out of the lab. "There was a lot of positive energy in the lab. We had a lot of stuff planned," says Genovese. Mironov "is one of the most wonderful and brilliant individuals that I've had the pleasure to work with," he says. Genovese says that if the lab does not reopen he plans to continue his work elsewhere.
Mironov says that some people at the university have expressed concern in the past about him receiving funds from PETA, given that PETA campaigns against animal research.
The fact that Mironov went for psychiatric evaluation is confusing for Genovese. "Not only did he seem normal in the lab, his ability to stay focused and stay productive was almost superhuman," he says.
Mironov is renowned for his colorful and forceful support of in-vitro meat technologies, and has been featured in many media reports on the topic, including the Colbert Report, a satirical U.S. television show. His vision of the future includes massive bioreactors churning out meat for densely populated cities, and a brand of expensive "nutraceutical" meat, providing both nutritional and medical benefits, for Hollywood celebrities.
Now Mironov's future is unclear. "My research is blocked. They say I am unstable. It has become surrealistic," he says.