The Portuguese cancer researcher Sonia Melo has been cleared of all suspicions of scientific misconduct by her employer Instituto de Investigação e Inovação em Saúde (I3S) in Porto. She is now re-installed as research group leader, despite of an earlier EMBO investigation which stripped Melo of her start-up funding and the title of EMBO Young Investigator. Previously, PubPeer users raised strong suspicions of data manipulations as well as concerns about irreproducibility and artefactual results based on questionable reagents. The affected publications were authored by Sonia Melo during her stays in the laboratories of Manel Esteller in the Spanish city Barcelona (see my report here) and Raghu Kalluri at MD Anderson in Texas, USA.
Neither of her former supervisors has been investigated by his respective host institution in connection to PubPeer-posted concerns about their publications with or without Melo. Aside of the EMBO investigation (the findings of which were only made available to Melo’s former and current employers), I3S was the only institution to initiate their own investigation. Unfortunately, its report is not available to the public either. All we now receive is a press release, in which I3S admits to the existence of data manipulations (interpreted as cases of “negligence” which “do not compromise the scientific content”) in 3 of Melo’s papers: the now retracted Melo et al, Nature Genetics, 2009, plus Melo et al, PNAS 2011 and Melo et al, Nature 2015. Both papers will be corrected; the latter was seminal in the fundraising of at least $80 Million for the purpose of developing a commercial cancer diagnostics test. No further Melo publications were investigated, including this one:
The entire letter issued to me today by Júlio Borlido Santos, Coordinator of I3S Communication Unit, is below:
External Memorandum – File on the Researcher Sónia Melo
i3S would like to announce that researcher Sónia Melo has been encouraged to resume her work as Principal Investigator. This decision follows the fact that Sónia Melo has been acquitted of any suspected fraudulent attitude in the inquiry initiated by i3S regarding her work before integration in this research unit. The analysis of the case was carried out by an independent External Committee, as was publicly announced in March of the current year.
The External Committee has been invited by the i3S Board of Directors (BD) to analyse and issue a report regarding scientific integrity allegations on Sónia Melo’s conduct, following EMBO’s decision to withdraw the Installation Grant that had been awarded to her. As mentioned at the time, Sónia Melo had decided to suspend her work as i3S Principal Investigator with the agreement of i3S’s BD and her group coordinator until the conclusion of the investigation. Meanwhile, Sónia Melo continued her research work under the supervision of her group coordinator.
The External Committee carried out all inquiries independently and included, in its analysis, all the documentation that was available to the i3S BD, as well as the publication record of the researcher Sónia Melo. During the inquiry, Sónia Melo demonstrated an attitude of total cooperation with both the i3S BD and the External Committee. The External Committee’s report formed the basis for the i3S BD decision.
As first author, Sónia Melo assumed her part of the responsibility for the errors underlying the retraction of an article published in Nature Genetics (Nature Genetics 41, 365 – 370, 2009), the publication of a corrigendum in an article published in Nature (Nature 523, 177–182, 2015) and an error in an article published in PNAS (PNAS 108, 4394–4399, 2011), the latter under amendment. These three papers only include work produced before she joined i3S. The External Committee deliberated that the errors identified collide with the need for scientific rigour and that they demonstrate negligence, a fact the researcher was in agreement with. The errors identified are associated with the editing and revision process of A01/00 images included in the referred papers, and do not compromise the scientific content of the papers.
The External Committee, which performed an in-depth analysis of the facts, considered that the errors detected in the three abovementioned articles are not the result of a fraudulent action or attempt to avoid the truth. The i3S BD is pleased that the External Committee has reached this conclusion and hence has encouraged the researcher to resume her functions. Under Sónia Melo’s suggestion, and in accordance with her Group Coordinator, the researcher is resuming her functions this coming Monday, October 31st”.
According to her institutional website, Melo currently receives funding from:
- “Embo Installation Grant” [revoked in February 2016, -LS]
- Exosomes Epigenetic Message to Tumour Microenvironment-understanding how HiC2 regulates breast cancer associated fibroblasts from American Institute for Cancer Research (AIRC)
- “Maratonas da Saúde 2015” from Maratona da Saúde
- “The functional role of exosomes in tumor hetesogeneity and cancer all plasticity.” from Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (FCT)
- “The role of Exosomes in Tumor Heterogeneity: More than Just Bubbling” from Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (FCT).
In this regard, it would be surely nothing less but raving madness from I3S to lose such a productive scientist. Question is now: will EMBO re-install Melo’s Young Investigator funding?
Update 30.10.2016. This just in: Maria Leptin, director of EMBO has provided me with this reply regarding EMBO’s cancellation of Melo’s funding:
“Our decision was founded on a critical analysis of extensive files, and we see no reason to reverse it.The statement we made in March still holds:
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.”