The University of Würzburg did not ignore the Open Letter in support of my journalism, and has concluded its internal investigation into medical and scientific activities of their trachea transplanters Heike and Thorsten Walles, without finding any misconduct. This was however not the end of it. I was invited to appeal this decision in front of the commission, which I did on March 6th 2017. In the end, the medical “external consultant”, Roland Jahns (specialist in inner medicine from the University Clinic of Würzburg) was catapulted out of the commission after insulting me as “pseudoscientist” and the entire investigation will be re-opened, with a new consultant to be recruited. The main reason: a newly emerged wealth of evidence of gross data manipulations in the papers by Walles, which readers of my site posted on PubPeer just when I arrived in Würzburg to give evidence.
During my discussion with the Standing Commission for the Investigation of Scientific Misconduct of the University of Würzburg on March 6th, I was also told that the commission does not see my original text, for which I am facing a court trial on March 16th, as factually wrong. All information provided there was deemed correct except of one aspect: my readers were said to be led to misunderstand that the trachea transplant operations took place in Würzburg (while they happened in Stuttgart). The commission made clear that their university does not want to be associated with these transplants. They did however admit that the misunderstanding arose because Walles themselves have been placing such false information in media (including this recent article in the Siemens magazine), and even on the University of Würzburg website. The commission however assigned to me the responsibility of checking in advance the truthfulness of such obscure sources.
The Commission report from February 20th 2017 is available here, there is also a German version. I was also able to find out some unpleasant details about the last two of Walles’ patients who received a pig-intestine-based trachea transplant, which I will report in my next article. Here, I will present the newly emerged evidence for gross data manipulation in the Walles publications.
Originally, the Commission examined one image duplication in the Walles papers (Linke et al 2007 and Schanz et al 2010), which was previously reported on my site. There, a so-called “artificial liver” was presented (an award-winning and media-celebrated Walles technology which apparently led absolutely nowhere). The older paper reported pig liver and endothelial cells grown on pig intestine, the younger paper human liver and endothelial cells grown on pig intestine. The image showing these “artificial livers” was the same though, only zoomed in. Walles in fact admitted that the duplication happened intentionally, because they were allegedly in this way quoting their own work on a pig model. The experimental method section of the Schanz et al 2010 paper was quite clear that only the human model system is being presented, except that Walles did drop some nebulous mentions of an additional “porcine model” in the result section.
Because of this, the Würzburg Commission originally decided in their (then-) final report:
“The article published in 2010 refers to preliminary work documented in the publication of 2007. To avoid misunderstandings, it would certainly have been preferable to explicitly reference the first publication again within the caption of the illustration. The fact that this was not done does not meet the criteria of scientific misconduct, however, and is considered negligence”.
I tried to debate this peculiar interpretation, but the medical “external consultant” wrote to me the next day to explain how this duplication is to be interpreted. He opened his explanation with describing me as “a pseudoscientist, immune to advice” (see Jahn’s email here, in German). Right after, the Commission’s head, Würzburg university’s law professor Ralf Schenke, apologized to me and announced that the investigation will be reopened and all aspects, old and new, re-investigated (original Email here, in German):
“Mr Jahns will withdraw from the work with the Commission, and has apologized for his comments not only to you, but also to me and the Commission. Also I can only regret the incident, especially since it in no way corresponds to the style of the Commission and also the spirit of yesterday’s hearing, which has been at all times defined by objectivity and respect.
The Commission will take account not only of the accusations you raised yesterday, but will also examine the already investigated matter with the help of a new expert. I will inform you about the further course of the procedure and can only offer you at this point once again my regrets for this failure and the delays in the proceedings”.
After having insulted me as pseudoscientist, the now dishonorably discharged Commission expert and inner medicine specialist Jahns proceeded to teach me (who used to do research in cell biology and cell differentiation) how to interpret such a paper:
“Besides the strongly human-suggestive concept of BioVaSc, there is also nothing specific about human cells in the subtext to (C), which would have been a clear mis-statement (and then scientific misconduct). So, however, everything remains a bit “in the mist,” human and pig cells are mentioned as a system used, and the interested reader is allowed to guess what is shown.
This coincides with our impression of chronically sloppy work, but without anticipating the commission, a serious scientific misconduct with regard to these two figures is not evident.”
The duplicated figure 4C in Schanz et al 2010, lifted from the old pig liver paper Linke et al 2007, was indeed shown to represent “BioVaSc”, and the paper explains actually quite precisely what this was, namely “human tissue models”:
“This bioartiﬁcial vascularised scaffold (BioVaSc®) was populated with additional primary human cells (hepatocytes (HC) or intestinal epithelial cells) to create in vitro vascularised human tissue models”.
However, I concur with Jahns that this is a relatively minor issue, but for a different reason. What my readers posted on PubPeer just when I was speaking in front of the Commission, shows much more outrageous data manipulations, in several publications. The only common authors on them are Heike and Thorsten Walles. Another common author occasionally is the patriarch of the Hannover Medical School (MHH), Axel Haverich (see my reports about his work on regenerative heart medicine here and here). Haverich was the Über-Boss of the Walleses and also, most prominently, of Paolo Macchiarini, when all three of them were still working on trachea regeneration in Hannover. Walles’ first pig-intestine-based tracheal transplant patient was also operated in 2003 together with Macchiarini (MacChiarini (sic!) et al 2004, Walles et al, 2004 see my report here), who as corresponding author on both papers was in charge of this experiment. Philipp Jungebluth, who is another trachea transplanter currently suing me in court (trial against me on April 6th 2017), studied at MHH at exactly that time and did then his medical doctorate under Macchiarini, with whom he later on transplanted several lethal plastic tracheas.
Thus, Haverich’s huge laboratory for Biotechnology and Artificial Organs (LEBAO) at MHH was the German epicentre of some of questionable thorax regenerative medicine and trachea transplant technology at around 10-15 years ago. Because my reporting uncovered it all and much more, MHH press office has blacklisted me and ceased all communication. That German state’s office for data protection even openly advised the public university MHH not to release any Macchiarini-related information to me (since he is being illegally awarded adjunct professorship there, see my report).
The full list of Walles papers flagged on PubPeer can be reached here (please keep in mind that until 2009, Heike Walles bore her previous husband’s name, Mertsching (who also works at MHH). These are some examples of what the Walleses and Haverich published, describing the development of the pig-intestine based grafts, mostly for blood vessels:
“Influence of scaffold thickness and scaffold composition on bioartificial graft survival”
Thorsten Walles, Tanja Herden, Axel Haverich, Heike Mertsching, Biomaterials, 24 (2003).
“In vivo model for cross-species porcine endogenous retrovirus transmission using tissue engineered pulmonary arteries”
Thorsten Walles, Arthur Lichtenberg, Carmen Puschmann, Rainer Leyh, Mathias Wilhelmi, Klaus Kallenbach, Axel Haverich, Heike Mertsching, Eur J Cardiothorac Surg, 24 (2003)
“Acellularized porcine heart valve scaffolds for heart valve tissue engineering and the risk of cross-species transmission of porcine endogenous retrovirus”
R G Leyh, M Wilhelmi, T Walles, K Kallenbach, P Rebe, A Oberbeck, T Herden, A Haverich, H Mertsching, J. Thorac. Cardiovasc. Surg., 126 (2003)
“Guided tissue regeneration: porcine matrix does not transmit PERV”
Klaus Kallenbach, Rainer G Leyh, Elena Lefik, Thorsten Walles, Matthias Wilhelmi, Serghei Cebotari, Andreas Schmiedl, Axel Haverich, Heike Mertsching, Biomaterials, 25 (2004).
Heike Walles and Haverich also had to retract in 2012 a paper for data re-use. That publication also dealt with this regenerative medicine:
Retracted: “Clinically established hemostatic scaffold (tissue fleece) as biomatrix in tissue- and organ-engineering research”
Kofidis T, Akhyari P, Wachsmann B, Mueller-Stahl K, Boublik J, Ruhparwar A, Mertsching H, Balsam L, Robbins R, Haverich A. Tissue Eng 2003 Jun;9(3):517–523.
As usual, the journal Tissue Engineering Part A put the retraction notice behind a paywall, but it is available on PubMed. The paper was retracted “due to the discovery of multiple publications of identical data” from other three Haverich publications, none of which actually featured Walles.
Whatever the role of Haverich was here, he did not feature on the above mentioned “artificial liver” papers, and not on these masterpieces of Photoshop:
“Functional neointima characterization of vascular prostheses in human”
Thorsten Walles, Heidi Görler, Carmen Puschmann, Heike Mertsching, Ann. Thorac. Surg., 77 (2004)
“Engineering of a vascularized scaffold for artificial tissue and organ generation”
Heike Mertsching, Thorsten Walles, Michael Hofmann, Johanna Schanz, Wolfram H Knapp, Biomaterials, 26 (2005)
“Generation of a bioartificial fibromuscular tissue with autoregenerative capacities for surgical reconstruction”
C Biancosino, P Zardo, T Walles, I Wildfang, P Macchiarini, H Mertsching, Cytotherapy, 8 (2006)
The Fraunhofer Institute in Stuttgart, where these latter papers came from and where Heike Walles and her above mentioned liver-designing first author Johanna Schanz still have their labs, seemed to be disinterested in the evidence when I alerted them to it. Instead, the Fraunhofer leadership apparently forwarded to Walles all my email inquiries about dead patients so she can use those in her court case against me.
How much or rather how little Walles‘ prize-winning and excessively overfunded scientific legacy is worth now, in view of this evidence, is an important question for the re-opened Würzburg investigation to answer. But probably even more important is Walles’ worrisome attitude to patient safety and medical ethics.
Please read about it in this article.
Update 14.03.2017. Beate Schwinzer, spokesperson for the Ombudsman office for research integrity of the Hannover Medical School (MHH), replied to my email about the above listed evidence:
“We thank you for your notification and wish to inform you that an appropriate investigation will be initiated”