Is EMBO funding misconduct?

This is a NEWS post.

My Twitter feed recently showed that the highly respected European research organisation, EMBO, is funding a scientist directly associated with possible misconduct and data manipulation.

EMBO has announced on December 8th: Nine scientists receive EMBO Installation Grants, each of the nine recipients is also to obtain the prestigious title of EMBO Young Investigator.

The problematic scientist in question is the Portuguese Sónia Melo, with research interest in “Exosomes in intra-tumor heterogeneity”. She is returning to Europe from the MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, US, and is to receive from EMBO the funding of ” 50,000 Euros annually for three to five years” for her new lab in University of Porto, Portugal.

Indeed, Melo’s publication list is stellar, her sheer impact factor justifies every possible research grant. Or does it? Are image duplications any kind of concern for EMBO, especially those strangely rotated and flipped ones, which can very unlikely happen due to negligence or technical error?

Here are some examples, from the whistle-blower platform PubPeer:

  1. Melo et al, Nature Genetics (2009) A TARBP2 mutation in human cancer impairs microRNA processing and DICER1 function                                                                                   Update 27.01.2016: this paper has been now retracted, see my comment below1skhskq

2.  Melo et al, Cancer Cell (2014) Cancer Exosomes Perform Cell-Independent MicroRNA Biogenesis and Promote Tumorigenesis

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3. Melo et al, Nature (2015) Glypican-1 identifies cancer exosomes and detects early pancreatic cancer

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4. Melo et al, Cancer Cell (2010) A Genetic Defect in Exportin-5 Traps Precursor MicroRNAs in the Nucleus of Cancer Cells

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5. Melo et al, PNAS (2011) Small molecule enoxacin is a cancer-specific growth inhibitor that acts by enhancing TAR RNA-binding protein 2-mediated microRNA processing

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I tweeted my surprise at EMBO’s decision, and wrote an email to the EMBO press officer with this text:

“My question concerns the latest grant recipient Sonia Melo. Exactly how were these concerns of data integrity in her first-author publications taken into account at the grant decision:
May I ask if EMBO had reasons to assume these issues of data integrity were false, irrelevant or not directly purporting to Dr. Melo? 
I would greatly appreciate a statement”.
My email went in cc to:
– EMBO director Maria Leptin,
– Programme Manager and Deputy Director Gerlind Wallon
– Programme Officer for Young Investigators and Installation Grants, Rachel Coulthard.
What I received as a silent reply was this:
screenshot-twitter.com 2015-12-09 18-57-30
EMBO has blocked me from seeing and following their tweets and from tweeting to them. What exactly does the EMBO leadership mean to achieve with it? I can still follow their tweets by opening a different web browser. Unless, the real message was, to show me what EMBO thinks of people like myself and the anonymous whistle-blowers who posted their concerns on PubPeer. The suspicion thus crept in, that EMBO and everyone else involved were fully aware of the likely data manipulations in Melo’s papers, reported on PubPeer since August 2015. But they chose not to let these suspicions affect the funding decision. We are talking huge impact factor after all!
In any case, congratulations to Dr. Melo and hopefully she will soon deliver many more high-impact publications using her new EMBO funding, for the University of Porto and EMBO to be immensely proud of.
Update, 9.12.2015, 22:30: I received a reply from Maria Leptin, promising to check why I was blocked by  @EMBOcomm  and to look into the issue of Melo’s funding. 
Update, 10.12.2015, 11:00 in another email, Maria Leptin has announced that I was unblocked on Twitter, quote: “the block was the result of an unfortunate after-hours miscommunication among staff”

 

15 thoughts on “Is EMBO funding misconduct?

  1. I reached out to Melo’s former employer and senior author on some of the problematic publications, Manel Esteller, group leader at the Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBELL) in Barcelona. He referred me to his recent comment on PubPeer: https://pubpeer.com/publications/6138B26AD870E1650162248515E617#fb40878
    Quote:
    “I acknowledge the obviously serious nature of the case. The matter will be promptly and thoroughly investigated and appropriate action will be taken. The first author, that left the lab years ago, has been contacted to ask for a formal and detailed explanation. The conclusions will be disclosed in the journal and in this forum. I also take the opportunity to stress that the collaborators that coauthor the manuscript or myself as corresponding author have absolutely nothing to do with the issues raised.
    As I have always done in my twenty-three years research career, truth and science should always come first.”

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  2. What astonishes me most in this regard are not the flipped pictures. We know examples like this in almost every journal and in almost every field. This is, in my opinion, the prize we pay for a research system where prestige is more rewarded than truth.

    I find the reaction on it truly horrifying. If I type the first authors name into google I don’t see criticism of her findings, I don’t see open discussion. I only see the “stellar” publication list. So maybe we should not even blame EMBO for not asking questions that were not obvious to ask.
    We also shouldn’t start a public shaming campaign on the other hand, I believe. The singular cases have to be thoughtfully and openly investigated.
    But it is up to us, as a community all working towards a common goal: The gain of knowledge and its implementation to benefit each and everyone, to discuss and put this into context.

    What can we really do to hinder things like this from happening again and again. How do we make science better?

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    1. Hi Peter, thanks for commenting. What counts now, is how EMBO will deal with the situation now. So far, all my emails to Sonia Melo’s portuguese funders as well as to the relevant institute of the University of Porto, where she heads a lab, were flatly ignored (in one case, the vice-president of the faculty wrote back to name the correct addressees for my inquiry). Thus, I am not sure how and if these things are being dealt with in Portugal. I think EMBO has the key role here, by being the principal funder of Melo’s lab.

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  3. Retraction for Sonia Melo et al, Nat. Genet. 41, 365–370 (2009):
    http://www.nature.com/ng/journal/v48/n2/full/ng0216-221.html
    Retraction Notice:
    “We have recently become aware of the presence of duplicated images in the Figures 3 and 4 and Supplementary Figures 5 and 6 in our publication Nat. Genet. 41, 365–370, 2009, that were assembled according to the specified author contributions. We therefore retract the publication for the sake of the high standards we expect for research and scientific journals. All the authors have signed this statement”.

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  4. Sonia Melo’s and Raghu Kalluri’s paper in Nature (see point 3 above) is the basis of an $80 million investment into a biotech company Codiak Biosciences:
    “The initial focus of Codiak will be pancreatic cancer. It’s a notoriously tough-to-treat cancer, and it’s often diagnosed late in the game. People usually only have a few months to live after diagnosis. The company will seek to build on research Kalluri’s team published in Nature in June. At that time, Kalluri said his team had identified a proteoglycan (a protein covered with lots of carbohydrate molecules) called Glypican-1, which was present on the surface of exosomes”.

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/luketimmerman/2015/11/17/former-biogen-rd-chief-resurfaces-at-80m-startup-pursuing-pancreatic-cancer/
    http://www.codiakbio.com/news/2015/11/20/zt25zw0csa4t7k36sy3fyv9pcfklwr

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  5. Sonia Melo enrolled the Univerity of Porto’s GABBA PhD programme class of 2005, did her doctoral work in Spain and was awarded her PhD degree in 2010 by the University of Porto, Portugal. The GABBA programme (www.gabba.up.pt; Director: Dr Alexandre Carmo) and the University of Porto must set the appropriate procedures in action to strip her off her PhD degree obtained by deception.

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  6. Dishonesty is rife in Portugal. I am not acquainted with Sónia Melo. I am acquainted with two immoral persons of Portuguese citizenship who are similarly named: namely Sónia Branco and Isabel Melo Albuquerque. They are the functionaries of the unethical Associação para o Desenvolvimento do Departamento de Física (ADDF) (“nº de identificação de pessoa colectiva 505 040 557”) which hired me in bad faith for a contract in Portugal (while I resided outside Portugal therefore I was forced to move to Portugal to accept this contract). Another physically assaulted and financially exploited scientist who also used to reside outside Portugal said that accepting an offer de Coimbra “University” in Portugal: “was the worst mistake of my life.” I can empathise with this. The social security of my first Portuguese contract (which was signed during the previous decade) unfortunately remains unpaid.

    On 27/06/2016 I attempted to visit the ADDF (which is physically located within Coimbra “University” despite being a legally separate entity) about this missing social security. A private security guard disobeyed then a court order by blocking a route at this “University”. He also lied about me. José António da Cruz of this “University” came over and also lied about me and about the ADDF and he said to me that I was not permitted exercise a right of this court order. This private guard summoned Public-Security Policemen (PSP) who disobeyed this court order by forcing me away by surrounding me and hitting me. (The PSP outside Coimbra is nice.) Ever keen to not fulfil their duties, Sónia Branco and Isabel Melo Albuquerque walked by us and into a bus. I asked them then about this unpaid social security. Isabel Melo Albuquerque did not speak to me then: she was using a mobile telephone. Sónia Branco falsely said: “You never asked for it.” During the previous decade during one of the too many occasions that I asked the ADDF about social security, she asked: “What’s your interest in this, Col[l]in?” Soon after that I told a friend of Portuguese nationality who was not sufficiently stupid to work at a university. He was shocked that exploiting me included even depriving me of social security.

    On 6th October 2010 I emailed the dishonourable Associação para o Desenvolvimento do Departamento de Física (ADDF) with Subject field “Continuing confusion re social security”:
    “Dear Sónia and/or Isabel,

    A few minutes ago a lawyer emailed to me…
    |———————————————————————————————–|
    |”Regarding Social Security, you should know that i have checked your records and realized that,|
    |after all, you’re not entitled to apply to that social insurance. |
    |According to their regulations, unless there is an agreement between Portugal and Ireland |
    |(which i still haven’t looked for), you are elegible as an independent worker only when |
    |receiving a scholarship… Therefore, as you are relying on a project’s subsidy, you cannot |

    apply…”

    Am I entitled to apply for social security? If so, who or what pays
    for it? What boxes of the form must I tick for it? If I eventually get
    the scholarship which I am suing FCT[Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia I.P. (Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology)] in order to obtain, would I need
    to fill in the form differently? Would anything else change?

    If you are not sure about these topics, who should I ask instead?

    Yours sincerely,
    Paul Colin Gloster”

    I spoke to Isabel Melo Albuquerque about social security on e.g. 31/05/2010 and 2nd December 2010.

    On 4th August 2014 I asked Professrix Maria Filomena de Osório Pinto dos Santos Figueiredo (who hired me in bad faith for this ADDF contract): “how much of the social security for my first contract was paid?” Incompatibly with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, not even one cent of social security was paid for this contract (for which net salary was received for June 2008 to December 2010).

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