MUSC suspends leading scientist Dr. Vladimir Mironov

Dr. Vladimir Mironov has been suspended indefinitely and his lab at the Medical University of South Carolina has been shut down.

The Charleston scientist leading a project to grow in-vitro meat from an animal's stem cells has been suspended indefinitely and his lab at the Medical University of South Carolina has been shut down.

MUSC officials delivered the news to Dr. Vladimir Mironov and three other researchers in his lab on Friday afternoon, a researcher said.

Mironov is on indefinite paid leave pending the results of an investigation into "a series of issues," MUSC spokeswoman Heather Woolwine said in a statement. She declined to elaborate, "given the confidential nature" of the inquiry.

A letter Mironov received from the university Friday said his suspension is a result of "unacceptable behavior" involving his contact with a research administrator at the University of South Carolina, which MUSC considered "an act of insubordination."

While the future of the meat lab remains uncertain, the suspension also calls into question the future of a separate project, a $20 million effort that aims to create human organs from a person's own stem cells.

Mironov had been one of the primary research forces behind that project, which was funded by a 2009 grant from the National Science Foundation. It is the largest sum the federal agency has ever awarded to South Carolina.

MUSC offered no comment Wednesday on the future of Mironov's role in that project.

A spokeswoman for the National Science Foundation said she would look into the issue Wednesday, but said she was unable to gather any information by the end of the day.

Mironov's meat lab has attracted national and international exposure in the past month, following the arrival of a new researcher whose work is being funded by the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

PETA gave a three-year grant to Nicholas Genovese in an effort to make so-called "cultured meat" available to the general public, reducing the number of animals killed for human consumption.

Genovese said Wednesday that he and his fellow researchers were blind-sided by the shut down.

Just before 5 p.m. Friday, research Provost Stephen Lanier and Regenerative Medicine Department Chairman Roger Markwald, accompanied by a security guard and a locksmith, entered the meat lab in the university's Basic Science Building, Genovese said.

The officials told Genovese and two other MUSC researchers to gather their personal items and leave the building, he said. They instructed Genovese to surrender his MUSC identification and keys and said his e-mail account would be terminated, he said.

"We were given no notice," he said. "It is a very difficult situation. Everything is up in the air. ... It's crazy. It's a situation that, in all honesty, I have very little information about. I never expected anything like this to happen."

A letter he received from university officials as they evacuated the lab said, "further activities on your part are no longer necessary," Genovese said.

Genovese said he's not sure whether the university will allow him to return to the meat lab at all.

"Once the issue -- and I don't know what the issue is -- once it's resolved, it is possible I will rejoin the lab," the visiting scholar said. "But MUSC has given no indication that I'm going to be coming back."

At the time of the shutdown, Mironov was undergoing a voluntary psychiatric evaluation at the university hospital, Mironov said. Mironov's discharge records, which he provided to The Post and Courier, show that he was under evaluation between about 12:20 and 4:50 p.m. Friday.

Before being escorted from the hospital to his car, Mironov said a university official gave him a letter of suspension signed by Etta Pisano, dean of the College of Medicine. He will get full pay and benefits during the suspension, according to the letter, which Mironov provided to the newspaper.

Pisano wrote that Mironov is under investigation for "unacceptable behavior which I feel violates the expectations of conduct as enumerated in the MUSC Faculty Manual."

In the letter Friday, Pisano instructed Mironov "to leave campus immediately and not return" until she gave him written permission to do so. She also directed him "to retain legal counsel immediately."

His attorney was to contact university officials by 5 p.m. Wednesday. The MUSC spokeswoman did not return an e-mail asking whether that had happened.

The letter said Mironov contacted the University of South Carolina's Scott Little, the administrator of the $20 million research project that Mironov also was heavily involved in. A Feb. 10 message that Mironov wrote Little "was sent in direct contradiction of my and others clear directives to you not to contact Dr. Little," Pisano wrote in the letter.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Little declined comment on the nature of Mironov's contact with him.

Asked about the future of the $20 million "tissue biofabrication" project, Little said, "That's a very difficult question. The project is larger than any one individual project or university."

That project, which is separate from the cultured meat research, involves staff members at 10 colleges in the state.

In his role with the larger project, Mironov was to be director of the Advanced Tissue Biofabrication Center, where scientists would develop ways to engineer human tissue, according to a statement from MUSC.

Mironov, along with a Clemson researcher, pioneered the process to engineer organs more than a decade ago.

His meat research also has been under way for about a decade.

In an interview with the Post and Courier this month, Mironov said he expected to begin the first clinical trial of "Charlem," short for "Charleston- engineered meat," in the spring. The first public taste test was expected to happen in Sweden in August, he said.

It isn't clear what will happen with the trials or taste test.

PETA is offering a $1 million award to the first scientist to make in-vitro meat and sell it to the public by June 30, 2012. The manufactured meat, according to a PETA news release, must have "a taste and texture indistinguishable from real chicken flesh to non-meat- eaters and meat-eaters alike," and be manufactured in "large enough quantities to be sold commercially ... in at least 10 states."

In the meat-making process, scientists take a biopsy from an animal. They extract stem cells and add "growth serum" to multiply them. The compound binds together to form muscle and receives electric shocks to boost protein content. It then is ground, flavored and spiked with vitamins and other nutrients.

PETA President Ingrid Newkirk called Mironov "one of the most important meat culture specialists in the country, if not the world."

Newkirk, who said MUSC officials have not contacted PETA about the situation, called for the lab to be reopened "as soon as possible" and criticized the university for being "closed-mouthed."

"It's clear there's a huge ruckus going on there, but a lot of lives depend on this research," she said. "They may not be on two legs, but they depend on Mironov being back at his lab bench."