It sounds like one of the most significant stories of the century, which raises the question, why hasn't it appeared in a significant place? Why hasn't the New York Times printed the Nicolsons' story?
"Are you naive or something?" Nancy Nicolson said with genuine shock. The answer was obvious to her: the mainstream press has been "gag-ordered."
She and Garth Nicolson, the chairman of the department of tumor biology at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, were sitting in his office last week revealing what she called "a side of science most people don't know about." That side is a conspiracy involving, among others, former president George Bush, former secretary of state Jim Baker, the Department of Defense, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and Baylor College of Medicine. The Nicolsons say their investigation into the matter has been marked by phone taps, mail theft and even murder attempts. Garth Nicolson produced a letter from M.D. Anderson president Charles LeMaistre as evidence that top administrators have tried to stifle his research.
"We have uncovered perhaps one of the messiest controversies and cover-ups since Watergate," Garth Nicolson said. "This one makes Watergate seem like a tea party."
If you subscribe to such publications of the far-right fringe as The Spotlight or Criminal Politics, or if you listen to such radio shows as Rob Thorn's locally produced Voice of Freedom, perhaps you have heard the Nicolsons' story before. It seems a Houston company was involved in the manufacture of a biological weapon that was sold to Iraq and eventually used on American soldiers during the Gulf War. The weapon is one cause of the host of ailments known as Gulf War Syndrome, Garth Nicolson says. He believes he's found a simple treatment but that victims are being denied care to hide the American origins of biological weapons, which have been banned by international treaties.
Perhaps it all sounds far-fetched, but Nicolson is a respected scientist at a respected hospital. He's among the 100 most-cited researchers in the world in the biomedical sciences, and he sits on the board of the American Association of Cancer Research. He calls his study of Gulf War Syndrome "probably as important as anything I've done."
"Just focus on the issue and what we're doing,'' he urged, "because this other stuff sounds kind of crazy."
But his wife argued, "People need to know, Garth. It's been pretty hellacious around here.''
And so on that note, their story began:
In 1987, while she was an instructor in the department of immunology and microbiology at the Baylor College of Medicine, Nancy Nicolson became extremely ill. She sought help from doctors, but they couldn't explain it, and she was partially paralyzed and weighed only 70 pounds when she and her husband began testing antibiotics on her. They tried half a dozen before finding doxycycline, which proved to be the cure.
At the time of her illness, her department had been doing research on tiny microorganisms known as mycoplasma, and Nancy Nicolson now believes she was deliberately infected with one of these "because I have the wherewithal to uncover what people are trying to hide." When she returned to work in 1988, she says, "colleagues treated me as if they had seen a ghost."
In 1991, about six months after returning from military service in the Gulf War, Garth Nicolson's stepdaughter from a previous marriage began suffering similar symptoms -- chronic fatigue, aching joints, fevers, vomiting, diarrhea. It sounded to Garth Nicolson like another mycoplasma infection, and so on his suggestion, his stepdaughter began trying doxycycline. She soon felt better and began passing the word to her military friends about the cure. With a letter from Nicolson if necessary, they obtained prescriptions from their doctors. Nicolson later contacted 73 veterans by telephone or letter, and he says 55 reported an improvement in health.
"A lot of the people who were getting sick were high-level government assassins," Nancy Nicolson explains. "When we started helping them and their families, they started talking to us."
As their "intelligence sources" began filling them in, Nancy Nicolson became a less than cooperative member of the Baylor faculty. She was fired in 1991, she says, "because I wouldn't go along with germ warfare." (A Baylor spokeswoman said that personnel matters are confidential, but Nancy Nicolson's termination "had nothing to do with germ warfare.")
After that, as a visiting scientist at M.D. Anderson, she began working more closely with her husband. By now, Garth Nicolson had learned of a "mystery illness" spreading among employees of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in Huntsville. The symptoms were the same again. "We knew right away what the problem was," he says. He contacted the prison system, he says, and once again, doxycycline cured much of what ailed them.
Their experience with Gulf War soldiers convinced the Nicolsons biological weapons were employed in the war; their experience with the prison system convinced them one of these weapons originated in Texas. Taking samples from soldiers and TDCJ employees, the Nicolsons examined them using a technique called gene tracking, which they originally developed to study cancer cells. They discovered both populations had been infected by a mycoplasma equipped with an HIV gene, which made it more invasive and deadly.
"It's absolutely diabolical," Garth Nicolson explains. "The likelihood of a single gene being transferred naturally into a mycoplasma is vanishingly small."
With the help of their intelligence sources, the Nicolsons concluded the biological weapon was created by Tanox Biosystems on Stella Link, a company with close ties to Baylor; that it was tested on inmates at the Walls Unit in Huntsville; and that it was sold to Saddam Hussein. Bodies were burned and records destroyed in Huntsville. A massive cover-up was under way, in part because George Bush and Jim Baker were Tanox investors.
(Bush and Baker were unavailable to comment on any of this, but David Anderson, executive vice president of Tanox, said they've never been associated with the company. To the best of Anderson's knowledge, Tanox has always been in the business of developing cures, he said, not diseases. As for the TDCJ's involvement, a spokesman for the prison system laughed and said, "Don't think so. That's just not true.")
Thereafter, Garth Nicolson devoted a lab in his department to mycoplasma research. As they began studying microorganisms, the espionage community began studying them, the Nicolsons say. Faxes and letters were intercepted, and "the phone company said they'd never seen so many taps on a phone," Nancy Nicolson recalls.
"It was a record," her husband adds.
Nancy Nicolson claims to have endured at least six attempts on her life. Assassins told her they saw her face and just couldn't pull the trigger. She says she was walking through the lobby at M.D. Anderson one day when a man in dark glasses stopped, opened a briefcase and showed her a gun with a silencer on it. He identified himself as an agent from the Department of Defense who had been sent to scare her. It was kind of absurd, she says. She laughed, and he ran away.
"It's been pretty dangerous," Nancy Nicolson says.
"But we've passed the most dangerous part," her husband says.
The danger subsided when, on the advice of their intelligence sources, the Nicolsons announced their suspicions publicly. Last September, in a seminar before M.D. Anderson's department of laboratory medicine, Nancy Nicolson told of the mycoplasma connection between Gulf War veterans and TDCJ employees in Huntsville. Then the Nicolsons found not their lives at risk, but their jobs.
Nancy Nicolson's relationship with M.D. Anderson was terminated then, she says. Garth Nicolson received a hand-delivered letter in October from LeMaistre. The cancer center has received numerous inquiries about this mycoplasma, LeMaistre explained, and he had discussed the matter at length with other administrators.
"We share a concern," the letter reads, "that scientific support for your statements needs to be reviewed and documented to protect both your reputation as a scientist and the Cancer Center's reputation as a cancer research facility."
The cancer center has no record of Nicolson's mycoplasma research, LeMaistre wrote, and administrators have not given authorization for it and can find no relationship between these studies and the cancer problem. He proposed a panel to review Nicolson's research and requested that until concerns were resolved, Garth Nicolson refrain from making public statements.
"It was clearly an unprecedented infringement on my academic freedom," Nicolson says, "and I would not tolerate it."
Nicolson believes Baker and Bush are friends with LeMaistre and pressured him to interfere. LeMaistre wouldn't speak with the Press, but through a spokesman he said his relations with Nicolson have nothing to do with Bush and Baker.
At any rate, Nicolson responded with a letter of his own. He admitted he had only preliminary evidence that Gulf War Syndrome was caused by biological warfare, but said the evidence had been presented as just that -- preliminary. As for peer review, he wrote that probably no one at the cancer center was qualified to review mycoplasma research, but he was consulting with researchers at other institutions. He promised LeMaistre he would call no more press conferences.
"You have my assurance that any future statements will be carefully drafted to insure that they are backed up by sound laboratory data," Nicolson wrote.
He was quiet until January, and then he and his wife began talking on radio shows again. The administration was apparently not convinced Nicolson had the data yet, for according to Nicolson, an administrator tried and failed to find reason to dismiss him.
The Nicolsons have continued to talk publicly since then. In an "unofficial" capacity, Nancy Nicolson continues to work as a consultant with office space in the department of tumor biology. They have a full-time volunteer now who takes telephone calls from people who believe they're suffering from Gulf War Syndrome. The volunteer asks these people to send blood samples, which are then tested in a department laboratory for mycoplasma infection by two full-time technicians. Nicolson does not charge for these tests, and he pays the technicians out of his own pocket. "It's cost us tens of thousands of dollars," he says. When results are positive, he mails a letter suggesting doxycycline.
Nicolson believes the mycoplasma is a deadly contagion. Nancy Nicolson says she's already detected infections among their neighbors. But because there is no evidence that Gulf War Syndrome is anything more than the many different maladies contracted by 700,000 soldiers during a foreign war, and because there is no evidence to prove doxycycline is a cure for it, and perhaps because of a government cover-up, doctors at military hospitals have not agreed to prescribe doxycycline to patients claiming to suffer from Gulf War Syndrome.
Some of these doctors are surprised Nicolson is comfortable suggesting a drug without an examination. Doxycycline can sensitize the skin to sunlight, and it can turn the teeth of children gray, says Arnold Gorin, a Veterans Administration doctor in Houston who is also director of the National Referral Center for Persian War Veterans. Nicolson isn't behaving like a doctor, says Gorin, because he isn't a doctor. Gorin didn't doubt that doxycycline may be effective on many of the illnesses that are called Gulf War Syndrome, but he was skeptical that any of those illnesses were caused by biological warfare.
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"Why would you use a biological agent that killed soldiers one or two years after they destroyed your capital?" Gorin asks.
But Garth Nicolson remains steadfast. To prove everything he believes, he has applied for a research grant. Meanwhile, through radio shows, fringe magazines and by word of mouth, the reputation of Garth Nicolson and M.D. Anderson continues to spread. Callers from across the country are clogging the switchboard now asking about the research into Gulf War Syndrome, Nicolson says. The administration has been more friendly lately, he claims, and the reason is that LeMaistre knows this is a "P.R. bonanza."
None of this could have been achieved, Nancy Nicolson says, if it weren't for Garth's good name. She promises the publicity will continue.
"People in the motion picture industry are interested in this," she says. "I'm meeting with Time Warner on Thursday.