Lawyering-up Medicine

Image duplication and other irregularities of Heike and Thorsten Walles

More inconsistencies arise in publications and statements of the litigation-happy professors of the University of Würzburg, Heike and Thorsten Walles. These regenerative medicine scientists turned the entire might of German justice system against my reporting, while their academic employer remains shamefully silent.  Their elusive animal experiments with the pig intestine-based tracheal transplants seem to be very real when Heike Walles speaks about them and become non-existent when her husband and research partner Thorsten does. While the University of Würzburg and the federal watchdog Paul-Ehrlich-Institute (PEI) protect the surgeon by asserting that no ethics vote was needed to perform his tracheal transplants on 3 patients, his wife claimed that he actually needed and obtained an ethics approval to do this.  Thorsten Walles himself in fact indicated that his last transplant in 2009 might have broken the German Tissue Law from 2007, i.e., if he indeed failed to obtain an ethics vote, while operating under compassionate use. In any case, no German institution was willing to discuss with me the existence or non-existence of these ethics approvals. Despite the simple fact that none of these 3 patients is alive today (one died in fact very soon after operation), it is none of public’s business.

Now, a seemingly duplicated image was spotted in two Walles publications (Linke et al 2007 and Schanz et al 2010). They describe the creation of an “artificial liver”, made from decellurised pig intestine (just like the tracheal transplants), seeded with endothelial and liver cells. These two publications are 3 years apart, the methodology description is also slightly different (e.g., decellurisation process and the speed and kind of perfusion). A minor aspect may be that the Linke et al 2007 paper described the use of pig cellular material, and Schanz et al 2010 employed primary human cells from patient biopsies. Finally, the image seems not just duplicated, but one looks actually brighter and like a zoom-in of the other.

The first author on the younger paper (and 2nd author on the older one) is Johanna Schanz, who did her PhD under Heike Walles and then became a group leader under her at the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology (Fraunhofer IGB) in Stuttgart, with which the Würzburg professor Heike Walles is still associated. This is the same research institution which refused any responsibility for their own tracheal transplants and passed it entirely to the “treating doctors”. Fraunhofer IGB also refused to answer my questions, and refused to process my inquiry to investigate inconsistencies in the Walles publications featuring the two Fraunhofer transplants (Mertsching et al 2009 and Steinke et al 2015). Will Fraunhofer IGB bother to investigate this newly emerged suspected image duplication? Anyone’s guess.

The central part of Fig 4D of Linke et al 2007 looks rather similar to Fig 4C of Schanz et al 2010 (highlighted with red boxes).

For these same papers featuring the seemingly duplicated image, Schanz and Walles received two awards, the Fraunhofer Society “Technik für den Menschen” (Technology for People) Prize of €10,000 in 2009, and the German government’s “Research Prize for Alternatives to Animal Experiments” of €15,000 for Schanz herself. This even made into German main evening news on television, the Tagesschau. It is not clear however how this ground-breaking Schanz-Walles technology has developed since and how many labs in Germany and worldwide have adopted it. The discoverers have not published much in that regard since either, according to PubMed.

The Fraunhofer IGB is indeed very proud of avoiding animal experiments, in fact they happily subjected two human patients to tracheal transplants which were by this institution’s own admission never tested on animals as such. Both patients suffered complications (as evidenced by the 2013 book by Bernhard Albrecht), while a 2013 dissertation by Heike Walles’ PhD student Iris Dally revealed that the pig-intestine transplants generated with that technology were likely containing dangerously high levels of endotoxins (see details here), which are bacterial debris prone to cause heavy inflammation in patients.  Neither of the three Walles patients is alive today, except, well, they do seem to be still alive on paper. To a naïve reader, these late patients seem to be doing very well, as evidenced by Walles’ papers Mertsching et al 2009 and Steinke et al 2015.

As I mentioned elsewhere, the University of Würzburg and the watchdog PEI refused to comment on these Walles transplants, but indicated that those never required an ethics approval since for such compassionate use cases, the sole decision of the doctor and patient’s consent are supposed to suffice. I tried to find out where the line is drawn, e.g., could a surgeon legally talk an uncurable migraine patient into an innovative brain transplant as a compassionate use therapy. This incompetent question was only met with silence from Würzburg ethics commission.  So maybe this would indeed be legal in Germany?

It is not clear if Thorsten Walles, who was a mere junior doctor back then, had the authority to decide anyway. The first transplant in a patient was done in 2003 at the Hannover Medical School (MHH), and led by Walles’s then-boss, Paolo Macchiarini. In Stuttgart, where the other two next transplants were performed, Thorsten Walles’ ex-boss, co-author and head of thoracic surgery, Godehard Friedel, refused to clarify the question of responsibility.  But even if Friedel helped Walles decide, the question of ethics vote remains. Was it needed or not? This information is so bizarrely sensitive that the watchdog PEI chose to break a federal Freedom of Information law by refusing to tell it to me. In fact it seemed PEI was completely at a loss how to classify Walles’ tracheal transplants, as the institute’s head Klaus Cichutek was quoted in this Spiegel article from 2014 (all patients were long since dead):

“The question was, what is it exactly: are those body parts, medicines or medicinal products?”

Maybe PEI was so confused back in 2007 and 2009 that they decided to stay out of this completely and to trust the Walleses to do this right? In a 2011 flyer for the German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), Heike Walles is quoted:

“Before the implementation of the Medicinal Product Law in September 2009, compassionate use was possible with the involvement of an ethics commission”.

It is not clear if her husband ever involved any ethics commissions to approve his tracheal transplants; given the graveyard silence, there is no reason to believe that he did. The decision was left entirely to him and his patient, apparently. In the same flyer, Heike Walles also spoke about a patient of theirs who received a pig-intestine-based tracheal transplant:

“We could show in the first compassionate use case before September 2009 that the tissue heals into the airways without any problems and the blood vessels grow in from the surrounding tissue”.

Which patient did she mean there? Because there were two of them. One was operated in 2007 and died just some weeks after, his transplant was said to have “rotted” inside due to “lack of a blood supply”. The other patient was the Indian immigrant Singh, who was transplanted on April 27th, 2009 and committed suicide in December 2011. This patient was not seen by his doctor Walles for “over two years” after that operation, which made Walles miss out the “many months”-long inflammation, the re-opened tracheostomy and the persistent coughing and wheezing of his patient, as described by the Albrecht book (also see details on both patients here). So how did the biologist Heike Walles know how her husband’s patient was doing and how excellently his transplant had worked out in early 2011? The BMBF-flyer was finalised on April 14th 2011, as evidenced by the pdf-metadata. In the good German tradition, the research institute Forschungszentrum Jülich, where this flyer was made, simply refused to tell me the publication date or when they received the Walles quotes. Given the pdf metadata, it seems that the biologist Heike Walles was publicly issuing a remote diagnosis on the patient whom her surgeon husband has not managed to see or examine yet. The Walleses did later on publish a 2.5 year follow-up biopsy of Singh (Steinke et al 2015), but again, the BMBF-flyer was finalised less than two years after the operation.

More than 2 years after Singh’s death by suicide, at a conference for “Technologies for  cell-based translational therapies” in March 2014, Heike Walles described his tracheal transplant as a “successful compassionate use case”, and mentioned that such grafts were successfully tested in animal models. Which is weird, since her employer Fraunhofer obviously denied just that. Even Walles’ junior colleague, Jan Hansmann, failed to convince anyone about the existence of those animal tests, despite his best attempts to do so.  Well, you can’t always trust Hansmann to get the facts right. He claimed in December 2014 on the University Würzburg website, that Walles’ 3 “successful” tracheal transplants happened after 2010, coincidentally just when the BMBF-funding for the clinical trial was running out and final evaluation approached. According to Heike Walles, 15 patients were envisioned to participate in that trial, which after around 5.5 years and up to €1.5 Million invested never really succeeded to achieve a single milestone.

Hansmann apparently confused by the space-time continuum, or his boss Walles. The operations took place years before 2010, and in Hannover (2003) and Stuttgart (2007 and 2009)


Walles also was indirectly quoted in that conference report from 2014, in reference to that same BMBF-funded clinical trial:

“According to Medicinal Product Law, animal experiments as required for approval were performed and implanted into pigs to prove a functioning blood vessel system. The examination of transplants showed, that those were in time re-cultivated with the cells from the patient organism and were not distinguishable from the patient’s own tissue”.

Which pigs was Heike Walles talking about in 2014? Thorsten Walles declared in his own BMBF report from two years later, describing in 2016 the pathetic outcome of the same €1.5 Million clinical trial, that all large animal experiments were postponed and obviously never performed (see details here). There are also no publications by Heike Walles to support her conference claim of animal experiments, on either pigs or rats, successful or otherwise. I even checked if Heike Walles really did say all this about successful pig experiments. Petra Blumenroth, press speaker of the Bavarian government-associated conference organiser, told me that:

“these text passages were not spoken as such, but assigned to the presentation of Prof. Walles“.

The corresponding Walles presentation from the conference was not available. According to Blumenroth, Walles either did not submit it or did not allow its publication.

What kind of animals are those which Heike Walles keeps talking about, without ever presenting any evidence? Are they virtual-reality Fraunhofer-made cyber-organisms? Or were the mice about which the Albrecht book spoke (“In mice such a graft integrated perfectly”) actually computer mice?

Elusive mice for tracheal transplants found? Original image source: Der Spiegel, under fair use

If you want to nudge the reluctant University of Würzburg to finally investigate and come clear about all these inconsistencies, and to cease their silent support for Walles’ legal actions against myself, sign this Open Letter by Rafael Cantera.

If you would like to support my court litigation financially, donation amount doesn’t matter, please go to my Patreon site or contact me.

Update 8.02.2017. The Editor-in-Chief of Journal of BiotechnologyChristoph Sensen, informed me that the issue of suspected image duplication is now being investigated by the publisher Elsevier according to COPE guidelines.

9 comments on “Image duplication and other irregularities of Heike and Thorsten Walles

  1. Pingback: Boletim de Notícias desta quarta-feira: Irã condena cientista à morte | Direto da Ciência

  2. Rafael Cantera

    Dear Leonid,

    I have downloaded the two papers with the figures in question (Fig.4D in Linke et al., 2007 and Fig.4C in Schanz et al., 2010), studied them in detail and with my long experience as microscopist used to evaluate fluorescence pictures of this type and I must surrender to the evidence: the authors of the 2010 paper used for their Fig.4C the same (with minor adjustments in size and brilliance, perhaps) image already published as Fig.4D in the 2007 paper without reporting that it had been published before. According to what the authors report in the figure legends, the first time the image was used was reported to represent tissue growing in a biological capillarized named BioCaM but the second time the image was reported to show tissue growing in a matrix with a different name (BioVaSc).

    Rafael Cantera


  3. Concerned

    Trying to solve academic disputes with litigation is so against scientific practice that it raises further suspicions. Thereby merely encouraging other scientists to look for more inconsistencies. Indeed, now more severe examples of image manipulation and reuse have been found:

    Can one wish that the result of this worrying story will be a crowd-sourced type of analysis on PubPeer of all images published by the Walles couple?


  4. Also Concerned

    I think Mr. Schneider is very busy. Those two pubpeer links deserve their own post. There seems to be a pattern of blatant image manipulation from at least one of the Walles couple. It will be interesting to see how each journal will respond.

    I don’t think the scientific community considers any of the publications in question as particularly relevant. If a paper in a forest is retracted and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?


  5. Also Concerned

    More instances of image duplication and manipulation have been posted on PubPeer. There appears to be 5 or 6 instances involving one if not all of the authors Heike Walles/Mertsching, Thorsten Walles and Axel Haverish.


  6. Pingback: Würzburg misconduct Commission acquits Walles, dismisses biased medical expert, restarts anew as data manipulations flood in – For Better Science

  7. Pingback: Walles tracheal transplant patients: secrets and lies – For Better Science

  8. Pingback: Will words or actual evidence count in the Walles case? – For Better Science

  9. Pingback: Heike Walles guilty of research misconduct – For Better Science

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