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Salk Gandalf Tony Hunter gets AACR prize for magic western blots

Gandalf the Wizard has been awarded €75k in cash and Pezcoller-AACR International Award for Extraordinary Achievement in Cancer Research, for his magical western blots, where gel bands multiply under his spell to summon a bigger impact factor. Well, maybe not that Gandalf, but the bearded gel wizard Tony Hunter, of prestigious Salk Institute for Biological Studies (where impure womenfolk is not welcome) in San Diego, California, USA. On April 15th, Hunter will be giving a lecture at the annual meeting  of American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) in Chicago, and then go to beautiful Trento in Italy to pick up his award. All because of those western blots of his, which repetitive enchanted beauty was spotted by the image integrity sleuth Clare Francis and then posted on PubPeer. It was in fact Clare Francis who wrote to me to accuse Tony Hunter of being Gandalf The Wizard.

A breathlessly sycophantic article in San Diego Union Tribune described Hunter as “superstar” of 50 years productivity, congratulated him on his new Nature paper and the cash prize, for which the Salk Gandalf can probably buy himself a new BMW broom stick to whiz about, to and fro. That sum of €75k is actually poppycock compared to the $ half a million Tony the Wizard got from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences as Sjöberg Prize for Cancer Research, but that is probably intended as lab investment into more of his magic western blots. Probably as compensation for 2012, when Thomson Reuters, (past keepers of the sacred Impact Factor) requested for Gandalf The Western Blot Wizard the Nobel Prize.

So now, let us see what dashing sorcery the King of Sweden and AACR thought was so astounding to give awards for.


Yan Xia, Gerald M. Pao, Hong-Wu Chen, Inder M. Verma, Tony Hunter

Enhancement of BRCA1 E3 Ubiquitin Ligase Activity through Direct Interaction with the BARD1 Protein. Journal of Biological Chemistry (2003) doi: 10.1074/jbc.M204591200  PubPeer evidence here.

The penultimate author of this paper is Inder Verma, senior scientist and staunch defender of Salk’s virile brotherhood against corruptive witchcraftery by impure womenfolk, and because of that now a deposed PNAS editor-in-chief.




What does that paper contain on magic stuff? The old loading control re-use, across 3 figures, even duplicated inside same figure, always in a different contest, standing in for different protein samples. Now that we cannot trust the haunted, pardon, Hunter team to have loaded their gels equally, what is the actual message of figure 4 and 5 here? That the results are invalid, if your gel lack proper loading controls. This is why a lab at Vetmeduni Vienna had to repeat experiments, to fix mismatched loading controls.


There is more in that Xia et al 2003 paper, including a gel lane which apparently features inside same gel twice. A magic trick worthy of Gandalf!


O. J. Shah , Tony Hunter

Turnover of the active fraction of IRS1 involves raptor-mTOR- and S6K1-dependent serine phosphorylation in cell culture models of tuberous sclerosis Molecular and Cellular Biology (2006) doi: 10.1128/mcb.01254-05  PubPeer evidence here

This paper has just two authors, and one of them is Gandalf with his magic staff. Look what amazing things happened there, gel lanes doubled inside a gel where pedestrian researchers only manage to ever achieve a single version of any gel band, no matter how often they run it. Of course this sorcery had to be awarded with prizes, and here is a particularly impressive figure from that paper, which simply keeps on giving. Maybe AACR can put it up in their hall of fame?

First author O. Jameel Shah is now Vice President of Cascade Integrative Medicine clinic at Pennsylvania State University. There, they boast with their naturopatic doctors, one does see that Shah knows to harvest the power of witchcraft. He is also responsible for that paper with his sorcery master Gandalf:

O. Jameel Shah , Zhiyong Wang , Tony Hunter

Inappropriate Activation of the TSC/Rheb/mTOR/S6K Cassette Induces IRS1/2 Depletion, Insulin Resistance, and Cell Survival Deficiencies Current Biology (2004) doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2004.08.026 PubPeer evidence here

Here a careless wave of the magic wand led to re-use parts of gel. Accidentally, this saved on research effort: instead of repeating experiments and loading all samples on the gel, not just select few, one just clones them, because controls do not matter. This practice on in-gel cloning of controls was in fact recently described as proper scientific approach by French CNRS and Sorbonne University. In France, they still do it in Photoshop, whereas the Salk Gandalf has real American sorcery at his disposal.

Pamela J. Woodring, Tony Hunter , Jean Y. J. Wang

Inhibition of c-Abl Tyrosine Kinase Activity by Filamentous Actin. Journal of Biological Chemistry (2001) doi: 10.1074/jbc.M100559200  PubPeer evidence here.

Here a reader will appreciate some magically spliced gel lanes (also very well hidden in this Hunter-lab paper by same first author, Woodring et al J Cell Biology 2004). One notices once again that Gandalf must have been a very busy wizard, what with his summoning of NIH grants. Thus distracted, his western blot spell lacked some strength and gel bands did not jump very far to breed themselves. Look at this:

Yan Xia , Ji Wang , Ta-Jen Liu , W.K. Alfred Yung , Tony Hunter, Zhimin Lu

c-Jun Downregulation by HDAC3-Dependent Transcriptional Repression Promotes Osmotic Stress-Induced Cell Apoptosis. Molecular Cell (2006) doi: 10.1016/j.molcel.2007.01.005 PubPeer evidence here.

Turning one gel band into two is in fact no easy feat, even for a Salk Wizard. Lots of magic wand waving is needed in Photoshop. A busy sorcerer sometimes can practice on background noise, like the image above shows. Sometimes it is indeed necessary to transplant western blot bands into a new gel background (indicated by yellow arrows), as otherwise fragile bands might wither and rot, showing wrong results. This was for example practice in one University of Marburg lab.
There are also quite some instances of inappropriate gel splicing in the papers from the enchanted lab from Tony the Wizard (eg, Gosh et al, Cancer Cell 2006), because there is a notion in the scientific community that it was acceptable prior to 2008 (or according to above mentioned Sorbonne University, even up to 2013) to dispense with proper loading and other controls if those interfered with desired results. After all, figures in scientific papers are mere “illustrations” of a fairy tale story, as we were once educated by ETH in Zürich. They can and in fact should be drawn with a magic wand, in Photoshop.

Science is a magical enterprise, only true sorcerers and wizards can do it. Hence the current AACR award to Tony Gandalf Hunter.

Disclaimer: the author never read the Ring of the Lords book, nor watched the three-part romantic comedy screen adaptation thereof. His only impression of Gandalf the Wizard derives from here.









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40 comments on “Salk Gandalf Tony Hunter gets AACR prize for magic western blots

  1. Dr. Teofilo Folengo

    [IP location indicates this pseudonymous comment came from Universitatsspital Zurich (USZG), Switzerland. -LS]

    Tony discovered tyrosine kinases, and saved millions of cancer patients. Then, rather than reaping millions from big pharma and enjoying life on a Pacific island that he could have bought, he stayed on in research and went on to discover histidine kinases and phosphatases. And how many discoveries did you make, Mr. Schneider? When you will get your cancer (and you certainly will, given the amount of bile that you spit), I expect that you will refuse to be treated with Gleevec, on account of the sloppy bands in Tony’s Western blot, you poor envious asshole!


    • Dear Dr. Teofilo Folengo,

      What’s that got to do with image duplication?


    • Dear anonymous commenter from Universitätsspital Zürich,
      PubPeer founders Brendon Stell and Boris Barbour recently wrote in Le Monde:

      “we believe that anonymity is a necessary incentive and protection for the commentators, especially those in precarious and vulnerable position, which is often the case for whistleblowers. Without this protection, the researchers censor themselves for fear of professional or legal retaliation”.

      I presume your desire here to hide your identity while defending those saviours of humanity like Tony Hunter and Jacob Hanna is a kind of whistleblower’s need of protection? Are you afraid of retaliation from powerful peers who disagree with your admiration for these titans, you poor persecuted thing?


    • “Teofilo Folengo”: The wording of your comment tells a lot about you.

      There is no doubt that Tony Hunter has discovered knowledge that is now
      used in the clinic. However, that doesn’t mean that he is a saint and can
      do whatever to retreive the data they publish today.

      I am glad there are people like Leonid, that have courage to talk about
      these problems.


  2. In reply to Dr. Teofilo Folengo
    April 13, 2018 at 08:44

    “sloppy bands in Tony’s Western blot” and duplicated are not the same thing.


  3. In replay to Dr. Teofilo Folengo
    April 13, 2018 at 08:44

    ” saved millions of cancer patients”.

    Where in the world were those millions of cancer patients saved?
    There is the overlooked issue of distributive justice.


  4. In reply to Dr. Teofilo Folengo
    April 13, 2018 at 08:44

    “Tony discovered tyrosine kinases, and saved millions of cancer patients.”

    As I understand tyrosine kinase inhibitors are used to treat chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML).
    In a country like the U.K., which has a population of 65 million there are about 750 new cases a year (year 2015).

    The 20% of the world that can afford the drugs comes to 1,400 million (world population 7,000 million).
    That would bring the number of new cases which could be treated to close to 16,000. Even supposing there were no other treatments I don’t see where the millions of lives saved come from.

    Also from discovering to beside is more than just discovery.


  5. Screening for image manipulations has to be made obligatory before publication so that at least publications in the future can be trusted.


    • Ana Pedro

      I do not believe 100% in any published data unless I can have acesa to original data and/or the data is coherent with my own data



    “Salk President Elizabeth Blackburn said in a statement that she is “saddened that an institute as justly revered as the Salk Institute is being misrepresented by accusations of gender discrimination. … I would never preside over an institute that in any way condoned, openly or otherwise, the marginalizing of female scientists.””

    The two senior Salk scientists whose data are mentioned in this post, Tony Hunter, and Inder Verma (immediate previous director of the Salk Institute) both count as “men” . Failure of the Salk Institute to correct, or otherwise, their problematic data would be to the advantage of these two “men” and to the disadvantage of “women”. Disadvantage is what leads to marginalization.


  7. The most disturbing lesson from this and many similar stories is: established scientists often think that they can slip past the scrutiny of a reviewer and cheat “a little”, just because they established their “names” during long and successful research carrier. The first time such a cheating might be difficult, the second – is easier, the third – easier still, and then it becomes a habit. Very often they also accumulate significant administrative power, which makes criticism of their work difficult and even dangerous. This is why academic science is such a mess. Tis is why the mechanism of funding is so corrupt. This is why billions that our society invests in research have such a poor rate of return.

    –Vadim V. Istomin, MD, PhD


  8. Mol Cell. 2009 Dec 25; 36(6): 954–969.
    doi: 10.1016/j.molcel.2009.12.002
    CtIP Links DNA Double-strand Break Sensing to Resection
    Zhongsheng You,,1,2 Linda Z. Shi,3 Quan Zhu,4 Peng Wu,1 You-Wei Zhang,2,6 Andrew Basilio,3 Nina Tonnu,4 Inder M. Verma,4 Michael W. Berns,3,5 and Tony Hunter2,
    1Department of Cell Biology and Physiology, Washington University School of Medicine, 660 S. Euclid Avenue, Campus Box 8228, St. Louis, MO 63110, USA
    2Molecular and Cell Biology Laboratory, The Salk Institute, 10010 North Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla, CA 92037, USA
    3Department of Bioengineering, University of California, San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla, CA 92093, USA
    4Laboratory of Genetics, The Salk Institute, 10010 North Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla, CA 92037, USA
    5Beckman Laser Institute and Department of Biomedical Engineering, 1002 Health Science Road East, University of California, Irvine, CA 92715, USA
    Correspondence: ude.ltsuw@uoyz; ude.klas@retnuh

    Figure 3.


    “Enhancement of BRCA1 E3 Ubiquitin Ligase Activity through Direct Interaction with Adobe Photoshop”


  10. Image duplication more than a couple of times might very well count as gross misconduct as grounds for dismissal. The trial of evidence would be relatively straightforward. Inder Verma disagreeing with his own results would count as perversity. Much cheaper than going down the discrimination route.


  11. Sadly Sweden has become a safe harbour for cheating scientists. The Karolinska scandal is constantly growing and the Swedish academy is collapsing as we speak. Soon they will be awarding the nobelprize for most elegant fraud.


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  13. Zebedee

    Fresh scientific concern
    Mol Cell. 2007 Jan 26; 25(2): 219–232.
    doi: 10.1016/j.molcel.2007.01.005
    PMCID: PMC1829326
    PMID: 17244530
    c-Jun Downregulation by HDAC3-Dependent Transcriptional Repression Promotes Osmotic Stress-Induced Cell Apoptosis
    Yan Xia,1 Ji Wang,2 Ta-Jen Liu,1 W. K. Alfred Yung,1 Tony Hunter,3 and Zhimin Lu1,4,5,*
    1 Brain Tumor Center and Department of Neuro-Oncology, The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer, Center Houston, TX 77030 USA
    2 Department of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery, The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer, Center Houston, TX 77030 USA
    4 Department of Molecular Genetics, The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer, Center Houston, TX 77030 USA
    5 The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston, Houston, TX 77030 USA
    3 Molecular and Cell Biology Laboratory, The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, CA 92037 USA.

    Fresh concern Figure 5F. See:

    For other concerns see:


  14. Smut Clyde

    Zhimin Lu seems to be a regular collaborator for Dr Hunter.


  15. I read retractionwatch regularly and check out PubPeer. I am generally appreciative of things like ‘For Better Science’ and its ilk. However, I’m not sure that character assassination can help the debate, including in the case presented here. As an active scientist in the field, I think I should comment on this piece, and put my name to it (I read it when it appeared in a Google search).

    I only speak for myself, but Professor Hunter’s scientific credentials, service to biological sciences (much of it likely to be invisible), and general modesty linked to a lack of self-promotion, should not be up for discussion. In my opinion, inflammatory headlines linking ‘AACR prizes for magic western blots’ and ‘bearded gel wizard’ are unhelpful (and a bit too obvious?), since they all too-closely resemble tabloid clickbait (maybe this is the idea?). And since when did the sycophancy of press releases/tabloids reflect anything about the integrity of the scientist or the importance of the study being advertised?! Come on.

    On the flip-side of the coin, this doesn’t mean everything published with Hunter’s name on it (>250 papers!) will be bulletproof with respect to retrospective analysis. Especially, data might not stand up to electronic scrutiny, and this seems to be the case for some data highlighted in this piece. But who ‘owns’ this data? This is a ‘sword of Damocles’ issue that hangs over every paper published in the modern era. This dilemma is sometimes dealt with by retraction or correction, but more often data ownership, presentation and management remain a grey area in modern science. In a perfect world, corresponding authors might accept responsibility for errors, but as retractionwatch seems to show, there is not always a linear pathway between scientific authenticity, purposeful fraud and standard human error (which is at play 24/7 in the lab); nor is it helped by the passing of time in most cases.

    Has Professor Hunter been asked to comment? Might the way the story has been presented make this impossible for him, which tends to undermine the ‘case’ presented?


    • Dear Prof Eyers,
      many thanks for your comment, and also a special thanks for signing it.
      To address you concern that I published this evidence behind Prof Hunter’s back: PubPeer repeatedly explained that authors are expected to act on the PubPeer criticisms of their papers. See for example this recent interview with Brendon Stell:

      “Authors receive alerts by email as soon as a comment is posted on their article and they have the possibility of replying with exactly the same prominence as the original comment. We believe that authors should provide an after-sales service for the publications.”

      All evidence presented in my article was published on PubPeer before, and PubPeer made repeatedly clear that it is their platform which is the central forum for such debates. I also suspect that Clare Francis informed Salk Institute long before my article was published, maybe CF will add to this debate.

      About your other comment on last and corresponding authorship. Of course it might be that the Watchdogs of Retraction Watch have established that such authorship does not automatically imply any actual responsibility for the contents of the published paper. In fact, I myself was sentenced in court over this argument. Maybe this viewpoint is true: I left science 3 years ago, things may have retrospectively changed since. Maybe last authors can only claim credit for good things, like awards, grants, promotions, but not for bad things, such as fake data. In Spain, this seems to be indeed the case:
      You as active scientist are the right person to elucidate this issue about last author responsibilities, I hope you will!


      • Obviously the senior author is formally, morally, scientifically and legally responsible. Any other claim is absurd and destructive to science. This is the burden of being senior author (and often PI). If you don’t run a clean shop your shop and you fail to clean it up, you got a problem…and science got a problem. Its also clear that running a clean shop is somewhat more difficult the larger lab you have and/or depending on the culture of the lab/environment and institute.

        In this case and knowing Tony, I am almost 100% sure he has not seen this evidence or been made aware of the issues. Did CF email it directly to Tony?

        Hunter does not need to cheat, some people in his lab seem to have thought this is ok, perhaps out of internal competition or bad morale/personality or whatever, its unacceptable, however until credible evidence is provided that Hunter is behind this or ordered this, I would doubt it.

        In fact if there was a general problem with his lab one would have expected far more articles with issues as he had 100s of students/postdocs through the lab over the years.

        I may be wrong but I doubt it. But somebody needs to make Tony aware of the critique, I predict emailing him straight up would be the best way. Perhaps Leonid or PB could do this? or demand the 1st authors do this….Wall-of-shame sort of way.


    • PeerJ. 2014 Apr 3;2:e313. doi: 10.7717/peerj.313. eCollection 2014.
      Internet publicity of data problems in the bioscience literature correlates with enhanced corrective action.
      Brookes PS1

      “Over a study period of 18 months, public papers were retracted 6.5-fold more, and corrected 7.7-fold more, than those in the private set. Parsing the results by laboratory group, 28 laboratory groups in the public set had papers which received corrective action, versus 6 laboratory groups in the private set.”


    • “And since when did the sycophancy of press releases/tabloids reflect anything about the integrity of the scientist or the importance of the study being advertised?! Come on.”

      How true!

      Press release.

      Director Professor Paul Workman FRS, Chief Executive and President of the ICR,
      outlined the Centre’s vision ‘to improve the quality of life of cancer patients and populations through research’.

      How does data manipulation improve the quality of life of cancer patients and populations through research’.?

      See comments for highly problematic publications by others.


  16. “The penultimate author of this paper is Inder Verma..” Enhancement of BRCA1 E3 Ubiquitin Ligase Activity through Direct Interaction with the BARD1 Protein. Journal of Biological Chemistry (2003) doi: 10.1074/jbc.M204591200

    AND his science was not as good as people thought.

    High proportion of publications reviews on “gene therapy” (it is not obvious when he ever got it to work, to be a therapy it should work in most of the people, most of the time), and forever hawking “gene therapy” at conferences.


    • Many people will realise they worked at some point with a fraudster. That does not make these people bad scientists or fraudsters. Science is based on trust, maybe this will have to be policed and enforced in modern times. However, it is the deeds of people with cluster B personality disorders (psychopaths, narcissists, anti-social etc) that correlate with scientific misconduct/fraud. These people are masters of manipulation, deception, evasion and fraud…and they will trick even their brightest colleagues through emotional manipulation.

      So hunt down the predators before the collateral victims. Guilt by association is not relevant in most cases.


      • “Many people will realise they worked at some point with a fraudster.”

        Until the last few years this was not in the general consciousness of scientists.

        Signs that you are working for a fraudster are:-

        You feel unhappy as there is a constant demand for results which fit the fraudster’s figments of imagination, yet the data do not fit.
        The fraudster is not hard-working, but in the office all the time, or on foreign trips.
        When you ask the fraudster simple questions about the work you realise that he does not know what he is talking about.


  17. He or she.


    • he is for the two specific cases, but I take your point.


      • But to be honest…..being on a lot foreign trips does not make you a fraudster. Most PIs are and most PIs are not fraudsters. Its important not to begin to look at the beaker being half empty….we all suffer from Trump depression these days….its not all fake science/news. Its not all fake god dammit! We are here for a purpose!

        Not sure all fraudsters are control freaks…though cluster B fits often involve deep need of control.


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  19. Fresh look at
    “O. Jameel Shah , Zhiyong Wang , Tony Hunter
    Inappropriate Activation of the TSC/Rheb/mTOR/S6K Cassette Induces IRS1/2 Depletion, Insulin Resistance, and Cell Survival Deficiencies Current Biology (2004) doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2004.08.026”

    Figure 1E. Higher resolution images from the publication.
    The background is very light, but many of the spots in the background appear at very similar positions.

    Figure 1C. Much more similar than you would expect despite different genotypes.


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