My earlier article presented the worrisome research integrity record at the gigantic US cancer research hospital MD Anderson Cancer Center, part of the University of Texas in Houston. Its particular focus was the ovarian cancer researcher Anil Sood, professor of Gynecologic Oncology and Reproductive Medicine and co-director of Center for RNA Interference and Non-Coding RNAs at MD Anderson. Meanwhile I have been contacted by no less than 4 former Sood associates with their concerns, because they say MD Anderson does not take them seriously. A pseudonymous guest post by one of these whistleblowers, together with some evidence, is published below.
Sood’s record of appalling duplications of microscopy image and western blot bands in his papers is evident on PubPeer, no less than 40 papers are flagged, spanning so far a period from 2004 until now. The whistleblowers who contacted me now also accuse Sood of inappropriate data handling, since he was apparently removing or adjusting data points on a whim, and taught his lab members to do the same. The results based on this creatively acquired mouse experiment data as well as duplicated images served to initiate at MD Anderson a clinical trial with up to 90 “patients with histologic proof of advanced solid tumors ” to test a siRNA based therapy, this trial is lead by Sood’s associate Robert Coleman, who is professor at the same department.
Worst of all: MD Anderson doesn’t care about what happens in Sood’s lab. They do have guidelines for research integrity, printable as pdf, but those seem to serve as a kind of toilet paper to wipe professorial bums with. As a whistleblower informed me, nine researchers working on different projects in Sood’s lab complained to Office of Research Integrity (ORI) or MD Anderson’s own Research Integrity Officer (RIO) William Plunkett or Department Chairs or Ombuds Office or Dean of Graduate School, Michelle Barton, since August 2016. In fact, those who complained where told to find another job, or were dealt otherwise with. There never was any investigation, only “leak of confidentiality”, while the University of Texas graduate school keeps sending fresh students to learn at Sood’s lab. Meanwhile, as a whistleblower wrote: “Most Sood core members already escaped, and got a job thanks to their publication with suspected allegations“.
My previous attempt to contact Plunkett led nowhere. He simply sent me what was supposed to be an out-of-office message, without indicating when he might be returning to answer my concerns. I never heard from him since, hardly surprising. This was what he ignored so far, according to a whistleblower, a total nine reports since August of 2016:
“One lab member, who also went to PubPeer: Mangala et al, JCI Insight 2016; Fig 3E. Sood ignored one of honest authors’ concerns regarding all tumors being in the brains of mice who displayed abnormal behaviors, also the picture of brain was cropped. This issue has been reported to RIO and Chair of Gynecologic Oncology and Reproductive Medicine with solid evidence but no any update from them.
Two lab members reported to RIO and deans of graduate school (Michelle Barton) about Sood’s research misconduct for his manipulation of in vivo experiment.
Another two lab members reported to the chairs of Gynecologic Oncology department with their concerns.
Another four more lab members reported to RIO and ORI with Sood’s research misconduct in vivo work”.
Nothing happened, noone seems to care at MD Anderson Cancer Center (MDACC). So here is another whistleblower report, by a pseudonymous Hydrangea quercifolia, including the evidence this hydrangea plant forwarded to me. It primarily concerns the recent Sood lab paper Nagaraja et al, JCI Insight 2017, some of the date meanwhile found its way to PubPeer.
Anil Sood and how much MD Anderson doesn’t care, by Hydrangea quercifolia
The graduate school at University of Texas MD Anderson does not care and keep sending students to his lab, Sood is a member of faculty there. RIO at MDACC doesn’t care because witnesses either left the country or are too afraid to speak.
These are the photographs of original documentation from in vivo experiment that was recently published by Anil Sood and coworkers in JCI Insight. Archana S Nagaraja was the first author and a graduate student from Sood’s lab. These notes have the original hand writing of Anil Sood – Mouse weight, tumor weight, location of metastasis, number of metastasis. Archana wrote numbers of OCT and paraffin [tissue embedding material, for purpose of sectioning, -LS] blocks. The control group from this experiment was shared with another experiment – siSnail RNA for Dr. Steve Cole.
As you can see on Fig 5D, titled “INHBA silencing in HEYA8 model” in Archana’s paper, numbers of tumor weight and tumor nodules do not match with what was recorded during the take down on the protocol. All outliers were removed.
Robert Dood, the second author on that paper, performed that experiment. I will now describe what happened after the in vivo experiment, there are also audio recordings for that. Lab members were discussing how Sood manipulated tumor weight and tumor nodules during Robert’s experiment. Lingegowda Mangala, the most senior lab member admitted on that recording that Sood always does it. He participates in every take-down and to record false numbers by himself. The trick is he wants to know the treatment groups in advance so he can adjust those numbers according to his expectations and hypothesis. People are dissecting the tumors in good faith, call out the numbers of nodules and pattern of metastasis, but Sood then records false numbers, and then measures and records false tumor weights by himself.
All lab members knew about that for years. In Fall 2016, several postdocs reported that to William Plunket at the ROI, but they were then told to find another job. American medical fellows who were participating in Robert’s study, and are heard on the recording, were too scared to report that to ROI. MD Anderson never contacted them and let them go without a word, although ROI received a list of witnesses from Robert’s take down. Medical fellows manipulated most of the experimental data in the past. Sood helped them generate beautiful in vivo data, and all of them became successful physicians and investigators. Sood was educator of the year, for several years in a row. This is a true synergy.
This is how tumors from in vivo experiments are collected:
At the end of each in vivo experiment, Dr. Anil Sood and a group of selected lab members dissect ovarian tumor mass from abdominal cavity of experimental mice. Treatment groups are blinded to all lab members during the take-down to avoid bias, but treatments are always unmasked to Dr. Anil Sood, per his request. Lab members harvesting tumors from mice need to count the number of dissected tumor nodules and assess the location of metastases. Tumor samples are then placed on weight papers and are given to Dr. Sood, who weights the tumor samples on the scale. Next, lab members call their findings and Dr. Sood records numbers of tumor nodules, tumor weight and pattern of metastases on the study protocol by hand using a pen or a pencil. The study leader does not participate in the tumor dissection and loads tumor samples into tubes for freezing. Many medical fellows and other international lab visitors noticed discrepancies in what was recorded in study protocols by Dr. Sood as opposed to what was called out by them during the take-down. Some members even decided to record the conduct of their in vivo experiments, take pictures of study protocols, and to clear up their doubts. There is an original audio recording documenting such a session.
Recently, some materials were given to ROI at MDACC and findings were reported to Graduate School at UT MDACC. A female senior lab member captured on another audio recording admits that Dr. Sood always participates in collaborative projects whenever in vivo mouse models of cancer are utilized. ROI at MDACC doesn’t seem to see any implications though.
It seems that all evidence is being consistently marginalized and allegations are dismissed. Current and former lab members are suffering because they have to tolerate this situation. They are too afraid to testify since all medical fellows and PhDs depend so helplessly on Sood’s recommendations. Since most of the eye-witnesses have already left MDACC, or even returned to their home countries, the investigation will most likely be buried. But should collaborators care about their research? What would happen if any of that questionable data was used to design and rationalize the conduct of clinical trials?
The sad thing is that Sood generated preclinical data on Ephrin siRNA on mice, and now that siRNA is in phase 1 clinical trial. The preclinical in vivo data on EphA1 in ovarian and endometrial cancer from Dr. Sood most likely gave a rationale to phase 1 clinical trial NCT01591356 on siRNA-EphA2-DOPC that is sponsored by and currently ongoing in M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Coincidentally, this trial is led by Dr. Robert Coleman, a friend and long-term collaborator of Dr. Anil Sood, and tumor samples and biofluids from human subjects are analyzed by Dr. Sherry Wu, a former postdoc and a current assistant professor under supervision of Dr. Anil Sood. Apparently, there is no reason to believe that there is something wrong with the conduct of the trial and the quality of that data. However, the quality of preliminary experimental data on EphA2 from the Sood’s group is not that apparent any more. Several publications on EphA2 in ovarian and endometrial cancer from Sood lab are already being questioned, as reported in PubPeer.
Thankfully, cancer patients do not need to care about “hot stories” on mechanisms of drug action. Unexplained irregularities and duplication in presented Western blot panels, and inadvertently cropped and duplicated IHC microphotograph neither compromise patients’ safety or impact the efficacy of siRNA-EphA2-DOPC used in the clinical trial. Let us hope that this clinical trial will make cancer history by bringing a cure and relief to ovarian cancer patients, and national recognition to its co-founders.
In any case, working with and loyalty to Dr. Sood is a really good investment in your career. Medical fellows who completed their fellowships under supervision of Dr. Sood published their research in high-tier journals and found respectful jobs. Their work is now being questioned also, as noted in PubPeer.
Anil K. Sood, MD – his beginning, perhaps his fellowship
Alpa Nick, MD, MS
Chunhua Lu, MD
Premal H Thaker, MD
Rebecca A Previs, MD
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