04/24/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Amy Bishop's Science -- Scientific Studies by the Professor Accused in the Huntsville Faculty Murders

After hearing about the horrific murders during a faculty meeting in Huntsville, Alabama, on February 12, 2010, it is only natural to wonder about the person who is suspected of causing such a grim tragedy. The lives of Drs. Gopi Podila, Maria Ragland Davis, and Adriel Johnson were taken, and Stephanie Monticciolo, Joseph Lehy and Luis Cruz-Vera were seriously injured. The sad events have left a wake of grief that cannot be healed, rippling through family, friends, and colleagues of those involved and rocking the concerned public at large. The achievements of these individuals as scientists and teachers are evident in their records displayed on their faculty page at their University, documenting advances in science in fields of biotechnology, physiology, and plant science. Dr. Bishop's record is less clear. At the center of a possible criminal motive in reaction to a negative tenure decision, Dr. Bishop's record is important to understand.

In the popular press her work has been cited in broad extremes from brilliant to deficient. The list of Dr. Bishop's research publications is relatively short, and the studies are published in smaller, specialized scientific journals. Her latest publications concern how a signaling molecule in the brain, nitric oxide, is involved in the injury and death of brain cells.

Nitric oxide is used in the normal signaling between neurons, but it also participates in cellular responses to disease and injury. At high concentrations nitric oxide, or the byproducts it generates when it breaks down, are lethal to cells. Bishop's two most recent papers concerned glial cells, called oligodendrocytes, which make the electrical insulation (called myelin) on nerve fibers (axons). Her studies showed that these glial cells were less sensitive to injury by nitric oxide compounds than neurons. This was based on experiments adding nitric oxide and similar compounds to cell cultures of neurons and oligodendrocytes and comparing how tolerant the two kinds of cells were to toxic levels of the chemical. Oligodendrocytes were more resistant to the toxin, and when the two types of cells were grown together in cell culture, she found that the oligodendrocytes protected the neurons from death by releasing some unknown protective factor.

From this finding, Bishop and her colleagues advocated an alternative theory related to multiple sclerosis (MS). Multiple sclerosis results in damage to myelin insulation. The loss of myelin disrupts transmission of electrical information through nerve fibers (axons), causing loss of vision, the inability to move certain muscles, and other dysfunctions. This disorder is widely understood to be a disease that attacks oligodendrocytes, resulting in the loss of myelin insulation, the death of oligodendrocytes, and subsequent damage to the bare axons that have lost their insulation. But in Bishop's view, the experts have it backwards -- the wrong brain cells are being targeted as killer and victim. Bishop argues that since nitric oxide has a more potent lethal effect on neurons, that MS was not a disease of glia, but rather it is caused by a direct attack on nerve fibers by nitric oxide compounds. This alternative view is not widely shared.

In making tenure decisions many other sources of information are taken into consideration in addition to the candidate's publication record. This includes letters of recommendation from scientists at other Universities, the individual's teaching record, success in gaining outside grant funding, participation in scientific societies and editorial positions on scientific journals, and other academic activities. Dr. Bishop's curriculum vita lists a patent for her invention of an automated system for maintaining neurons in cell culture without having to maintain them by hand. The machine, about the size of a desktop photocopier, contained an internal camera and microscope and other instruments that would enable a researcher to insert the cultures into the device and then monitor and control the culture from a remote location by computer without having to be exposed to the samples directly.

The market for such a device is difficult to assess. Like gardeners, most scientists who work with cell cultures enjoy the hands-on care and nurturing of their cultures and most feel this nurturing is important to the success of experiments. The desire to control events remotely from a distance seems ominous now coming from the troubled mind of an inventor accused in crimes of revenge by mail bomb and fire arms, and whose scientific interests were in cell death.