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In danger, scientist ends hunger strike

A government scientist has ended his hunger strike against the National Institutes of Health in its 33rd day, defusing at least for now an embarrassing confrontation over the institutes' handling of scientific fraud cases.

The scientist, Walter W. Stewart, began the strike after he and Dr. Ned Feder, both prominent scientific fraud investigators, were criticized by Health and Human Services officials and their office shut down. On Friday he was told by a doctor that he was in danger of sudden, irregular heart rhythms and possibly death from heart failure if he continued his fast. He began eating that night.

Stewart had lost 30 pounds, his blood pressure had dropped 40 points and he had reached the most dangerous stage of a hunger strike, when physical damage to the heart muscle and kidneys begins in earnest. In other hunger strikes, death has come between 40 and 60 days.

Even though he has ended his strike, Stewart said Saturday that he had not given up his demands: that the institutes reopen his office and make a commitment to thoroughly investigate the fraud cases he has in his locked-up files. Whistle-blowers who brought in the cases are taking up the strike to continue the protest.

After first ignoring the hunger strike, officials of the health department, which oversees the NIH, began a review of Stewart's case on June 3.