News Research integrity

Sonia Melo loses EMBO YIP Funding, suspended as PI

Sonia Melo, the Portuguese scientist accused of data manipulation and misconduct, now loses her EMBO Installation Grant funding by the European research agency EMBO. The EMBO funding was of ”50,000 Euros annually for three to five years” for her research lab at the Instituto de Patologia e Imunologia Molecular da Universidade do Porto (Ipatimup) in Portugal, as well as “benefits similar to those of the EMBO Young Investigator Programme“.  EMBO has began their investigation into Melo’s publications in January 2016  after they were made aware of the accusations of data manipulation raised against Melo on PubPeer (see details here).

As I was informed by Tilmann Kiessling, Head of Communications at EMBO:

“as a follow up to your reporting on Sonia Melo, this is to confirm that EMBO has withdrawn the installation grant awarded to her. After EMBO had become aware of the allegations against papers authored by her we set up a committee to investigate these allegations. After a thorough analysis of all papers that had formed the basis for her application for the grant, the committee concluded that the body of work upon which the selection for an installation grant was made contained evidence of a level of negligence in handling and presenting data that would have precluded a recommendation for an award. The committee therefore decided that Sonia Melo should not become a member of the EMBO network of Young Investigators and Installation Grantees, and that the installation grant will be revoked. This has been communicated to Sonia Melo and her home institution on February 29.”.

As I previously reported, Melo’s former PhD advisor, Manel Esteller was intended to be investigated by his host institution, Institut d’Investigació Biomèdica de Bellvitge (IDIBELL) in Barcelona (which for now is not going to happen, see update below). Melo and Esteller already had to retract a paper (Melo et al, Nature Genetics 41, 365–370, 2009) due to image duplications.

I also attempted to obtain information whether Melo’s former lab of Raghu Kalluri, Chair of the Department of  Cancer Biology  at MD Anderson, University of Texas, is under investigation as well. MD Anderson has a sponsored research agreement with Kalluri’s company, Codiak Biosciences, which raised $80Mio investment to develop a prostate cancer screening test based on the Melo’s and Kalluri’s 2015 common paper in Nature.


Update 04.03.2016: I received a reply to my Open Records Request/Public Information Act from February 17th to Weldon Gage, Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of the University of Texas at Austin. There I asked, if any publications from Kalluri lab at MD Anderson were subject to an institutional investigation for data integrity concerns. Gage’s official reply indicated the absence of any such investigation at MD Anderson:

“After a diligent search, we have discovered no documents responsive to your request. By providing you with this response, UT MD Anderson Cancer Center considers your request closed”.


Update, 3.03.2016: as the Portuguese newspaper Publico reports, “her duties at the  Instituto de Investigação e Inovação em Saúde (I3S) were suspended this week”. Ipatimup, where Melo’s lab is based,  is integrated into I3S. Publico quotes the I3S Press Communications Unit:

This suspension of duties “affects the acts related to the principal investigator function”, but does not affect “the current activity of the researcher within the research group in which she operates”. 

Furthermore, according to the Portuguese newspaper, I3S stated:

The same source ensures that the institute “has always been careful, since it has noted the allegations made to the scientific integrity of the work by Sonia Melo.” However, since the work in question were not performed at the institution, the body “has no formal legitimacy to launch an audit of the work”.

As Publico writes, Melo’s activities in I3S laboratory in Porto are suspended until the conclusion of an external investigation. The committee was already appointed by the I3S management, based on their decision the institute will decide on the future of their association with Melo.
2nd Update 3.03.2016. 
I now received by email this statement by Júlio Borlido Santos, Communication Unit Coordinator, Instituto de Investigação e Inovação em Saúde, Universidade do Porto (original here):

The Board of Directors of i3S is fully aware of the allegations concerning the scientific integrity of Sónia Melo’s work prior to becoming an i3S member and has been closely monitoring the discussion surrounding these allegations. The Board was given advanced information of the 2009 article retraction in Nature Genetics, as well as of the reasons that led to such a decision. EMBO (European Molecular Biology Organization), with which i3S has been in permanent contact, has reassessed Melo’s application to the EMBO Installation Grant that had been awarded to her. EMBO has now released its conclusions and has imparted i3S that the funding contract is being cancelled.

In addition, i3S has opened an inquiry to analyse the case, which is being executed by an External Committee that was instated for this purpose. In the meantime, Sónia Melo decided, in accordance with the Board of Directors and her research group’s leader, to suspend her activities as Principal Investigator at i3S until the inquiry is closed. However, this suspension refers only to activities intrinsic to the nature and duties of a Principal Investigator, and does not affect her ongoing work as a researcher within the research group she integrates. The Board of Directors of i3S will base its decision regarding the researcher’s affiliation to this research unit, which is tied to FCT and the University of Porto, upon the official stance released by the External Committee that is comprised of independent, external members.

At present, the i3S Board of Directors think it premature to address any sort of procedural details, albeit renew the wish for a prompt resolutio


Update 7.03.2016: Spanish science and technology news site Hipertextual quotes today this message from  IDIBELL they just received (hyperlinks by Hipertextual, translated by Google Translate, with editing from my side):

“With regard to your question about the case of Sonia Melo, we inform you that the article published during her collaboration with Dr. Esteller was retracted from the journal Nature Genetics because of doubts about the conduct of research. The group of Dr. Esteller is reviewing all results which could be subject to dispute, as it is common in scientific practice, in response to requests from independent researchers requiring this information.This process is completely normal and is made group-internally according to the usual protocols of publication and scientific discussion.

Additionally, the Idibell has the office of the Ombudsman to ensure the quality of scientific research and resolve conflicts between researchers of the institution. If necessary, this figure can act independently to resolve any questions about good scientific practice, which does not occur at this time because, as we said, Dr. Esteller proceeded to immediately retract the article to unravel the doubts on the conduct of Dr. Melo.

It is important to emphasize that the responsibility for managing the results of a scientific publication usually falls on the first author, and that the work of the senior author  (last name), is to direct, coordinate and review the work, which occasionally allows the published errors to pass unnoticed through his filter. Thus, the attitude of Manel Esteller has been exemplary in recognizing a possible error and retracting the work quickly, once doubts were expressed about it”.

44 comments on “Sonia Melo loses EMBO YIP Funding, suspended as PI

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  2. The data from the following Melo paper (Glypican-1 paper):

    also does not match with my raw proteomics data, the same way it does not match with the data from Costa-Silva et al, 2015.


  3. More specifically, the conclusions of my brief analysis of my mass spectrometry data concerning the manuscripts:

    Melo et al. 2015. Glypican-1 identifies cancer exosomes and detects early pancreatic cancer. Nature. 2015 Jul 9;523(7559):177-82
    Costa-Silva et al. 2015. Pancreatic cancer exosomes initiate pre-metastatic niche formation in the liver. Nat Cell Biol. 2015 Jun;17(6):816-26
    I cannot find GPC1 in exosomes derived from pancreatic cancer cell lines such as BXPC3 and MiaPaca2, neither I found GPC1 in plasma derived from pancreatic tumor-bearing mouse or control mouse. Indeed, is very difficult to find GPC1 in any exosome type.
    Indeed, MIF is present in the exosomes of several human pancreatic cancer cell lines but not in the exosomes derived from PANC1 cells. MIF is also present in the exosomes derived from normal mouse pancreas exosomes and also I cannot found MIF in plasma derived from pancreatic tumor-bearing mouse or control mouse. Finally, MIF is not highly expressed in PDAC exosomes (MIF has a similar expression in normal mouse pancreas exosomes)


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