Promi­nent can­cer bi­ol­o­gist In­der Ver­ma re­signs from Salk in wake of sex­u­al ha­rass­ment al­le­ga­tions

Fol­low­ing al­le­ga­tions of sex­u­al ha­rass­ment, In­der Ver­ma, a promi­nent can­cer bi­ol­o­gist not­ed for his con­tri­bu­tion to the fields of gene ther­a­py and im­muno-on­col­o­gy, has re­signed from the Salk In­sti­tute for Bi­o­log­i­cal Stud­ies.

The San Diego-based in­sti­tute said Ver­ma re­signed on June 6, days be­fore the board of trustees were sched­uled to re­view the in­sti­tute’s for­mal in­ves­ti­ga­tion in­to al­le­ga­tions against him. The board had con­vened to­day to dis­cuss those find­ings — based on which “ap­pro­pri­ate re­spon­sive ac­tion” had been con­sid­ered — but end­ed up vot­ing unan­i­mous­ly to ac­cept his res­ig­na­tion.

In April, Sci­ence pub­lished a de­tailed ac­count of al­le­ga­tions made by eight women who said that Ver­ma “grabbed their breasts, pinched their but­tocks, forcibly kissed them, propo­si­tioned them, and re­peat­ed­ly com­ment­ed on their phys­i­cal at­trib­ut­es in pro­fes­sion­al set­tings.” Among them were a Salk lab tech­ni­cian, a post­doc­tor­al re­searcher, oth­er Salk staffers and fac­ul­ty, and women out­side of the in­sti­tute who had pro­fes­sion­al en­coun­ters with Ver­ma. Five were named while three re­quest­ed anonymi­ty.

Salk sus­pend­ed Ver­ma, who first joined in 1974, when the in­sti­tute re­ceived a list of ques­tions from Sci­ence writer Mered­ith Wad­man a few days pri­or to the sto­ry’s pub­li­ca­tion and saw claims that the in­sti­tute “was not pre­vi­ous­ly aware of.” That led them to al­so ex­pand the scope of an in­ves­ti­ga­tion on Ver­ma that be­gan in Feb­ru­ary in re­sponse to oth­er al­le­ga­tions.

At that time, Ver­ma de­nied the al­le­ga­tions through a state­ment to the me­dia:

I have nev­er used my po­si­tion at the Salk In­sti­tute to take ad­van­tage of oth­ers. I have al­so nev­er en­gaged in any sort of in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship with any­one af­fil­i­at­ed with the Salk In­sti­tute. I have nev­er in­ap­pro­pri­ate­ly touched, nor have I made any sex­u­al­ly charged com­ments, to any­one af­fil­i­at­ed with the Salk In­sti­tute. I have nev­er al­lowed any of­fen­sive or sex­u­al­ly charged con­ver­sa­tions, jokes, ma­te­r­i­al, etc. to oc­cur at the Salk In­sti­tute.

Ver­ma’s de­par­ture may mark an end to his episode of the #MeToo move­ment, but Salk’s ten­sion with women among its ranks is far from over.

In 2017, three fe­male Salk se­nior sci­en­tists sued the in­sti­tute for gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion. Bi­ol­o­gists Kather­ine Jones, Vic­ki Lund­blad and Bev­er­ly Emer­son each filed law­suits ac­cus­ing Salk of be­ing an “old boys’ club” where women were shut out of op­por­tu­ni­ties and con­sis­tent­ly un­der­val­ued.

As a re­sult of the law­suits, Ver­ma — who was named in two of them for im­ped­ing fe­male sci­en­tists’ ca­reer ad­vance­ment — was placed on leave as ed­i­tor-in-chief of the pres­ti­gious Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tion­al Acad­e­my of Sci­ences (PNAS) jour­nal. He re­signed from the po­si­tion in May.

The law­suits are ex­pect­ed to go to tri­al in De­cem­ber.

Im­age: In­der Ver­ma. SALK

At the In­flec­tion Point for the Next Gen­er­a­tion of Can­cer Im­munother­a­py

While oncology researchers have long pursued the potential of cellular immunotherapies for the treatment of cancer, it was unclear whether these therapies would ever reach patients due to the complexity of manufacturing and costs of development. Fortunately, the recent successful development and regulatory approval of chimeric antigen receptor-engineered T (CAR-T) cells have demonstrated the significant benefit of these therapies to patients.

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