News Research integrity

Zombie scientist Sonia Melo awarded by AstraZeneca

Sonia Melo is back, and not to be messed with. The Portuguese zombie scientist is responsible for a number of papers with manipulated data (only one was retracted, Melo et al, Nature Genetics, 2009), saw her EMBO Young Investigator funding withdrawn in 2016, but was whitewashed and reinstalled by her employing institute Instituto de Investigação e Inovação em Saúde (I3S) in Porto. Her key publication in Nature with MD Anderson professor Raghu Kalluri, Melo et al, 2015, which raised obscene money in industrial and public investment for Kalluri’s spin-off Codyak Biosciences to market exosome-based liquid biopsy for pancreatic cancer detection, was disproven as an artefact at best, the authors even admitted in a follow-up preprint to have intentionally manipulated flow cytometry data to achieve results they needed. Collaborators were instructed never to work with her again. All in all, Melo is as toxic as a zombie scientist can be. But apparently not in her home country Portugal.

In March 2018, Melo received a Prémio FAZ Ciência award from Fundação AstraZeneca (FAZ) and Sociedade Portuguesa de Oncologia (Portuguese Society of Oncology, SPO). Which means, not just Portuguese academia, also international Big Pharma industry trusts her Photoshop skills. The award comes with €35k cash, and this is how much or how little was needed for the University of Porto to drop all pretence at research integrity and celebrate their zombie scientist as a genius researcher about to cure cancer.

No point of even trying to do proper science in Portugal, or whine about research integrity, is the message. Look who won an award and asked to cure cancer. Photo: AstraZeneca

Back in 2016, the European Molecular Biology Organisation EMBO investigated Melo and revoked in February 2016 her Young Investigator funding:

“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”. 

Yet EMBO apparently made a mistake when the society decided not to release their documents on the Melo case. It is in fact the only damning investigative report around, what with Melo whitewashed by I3S, her former PhD boss Manel Esteller whitewashed by his Institut d’Investigació Biomèdica de Bellvitge (IDIBELL) in Barcelona, Spain, and Kalluri’s MD Anderson simply refusing to react in any way to evidence of misconduct in this elite US cancer research institution.

Melo’s star is rising again, and everything is possible. She published in Nature again in 2017, a new exosome study from Kalluri’s lab: Kamerkar et al 2017, which was immediately critically discussed on PubPeer. Will this zombie scientist get an ERC grant next, for €2-2.5 mn, since European Research Council doesn’t believe in research misconduct? Will she be even nominated by Portuguese science as EMBO member?

Only EMBO can stop this farce before it gets worse. They must release their 2016 investigative report.

Just one example of obviously manipulated data in Melo et al Cancer Cell 2014, from Kalluri’s MD Anderson lab, as listed on PubPeer.

Here is the Google-translated press release by University of Porto:

The project ‘Making immunotherapy a reality for patients with pancreatic cancer’ , led by researcher Sonia Melo , at Institute for Research and Innovation in Health at the University of Porto (I3S) , won the “FAZ Science Award” in 2018 , an initiative of Foundation AstraZeneca (FAZ) and the Portuguese Society of Oncology (SPO). This award aims to distinguish the best research project in translational Immuno-Oncology developed in Portugal and translates into a package of 35 thousand euros .

The prognosis of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma is, according to the researchers, “dark”, having a high mortality rate. For patients, treatment options are limited and survival has not changed substantially in the last 40 years, despite the promise of targeted therapy and immunotherapy, which did not materialize.

For the team Sonia Melo, exosomes (nano-vesicles produced by all cells in the human body) released by cancer cells contribute to reprogram the tumour microenvironment, making it insensitive to immunotherapy. To change this situation, the researcher proposes to, “using preclinical models,” target the cancer exosomes, making the tumour susceptible to immunotherapy and thus “open up the possibility of a new therapeutic strategy with great potential for improve the survival of patients. ”

The work is recognized by researchers involved as “ambitious” but achievable, especially as it has the support of the Department of Gastroenterology of the Hospital de São João, Porto. A relationship that, according to Manuel Sobrinho Simões, director of IPATIMUP and deputy director of I3S, you need to cultivate: “It is necessary that the questions of clinicians are brought to the laboratory and then treated experimentally, since it is this ‘universe’ that is gained to such translational research with economic and social impact that makes the difference between countries with and without clinical investigation ‘seriously’ ‘.

Paul Cortes, president of the executive board of the Portuguese Cancer Society, points out that the area of ​​Immuno-Oncology has established itself as a promise, able to revolutionize cancer treatment. It is “an area in full development and expansion, with immense possibilities of treatment combinations. The investigation of markers that may predict a better response to such treatments, as well as knowledge of the best approaches for each patient and for each cancer subtype, are crucial. We are walking progressively towards customizing the accuracy of medicine”, he said.

The president of AstraZeneca Foundation, Jesús Ponce, believes that the future of medicine arrived for innovation in the search for innovative solutions in the diagnosis and treatment of unfilled medical needs, with the potential to change the lives of patients. That responsibility concludes stressing that “Portugal is doing scientific research of the highest quality that deserves to be honoured and supported. And this project is clearly proof of that.”

Award-winning Sonia with two happy men, clearly aroused by the prospects of curing cancer with her. Right: Jesús Ponce (FAZ), left: Paul Cortes (SPO). Photo: AstraZeneca.


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13 comments on “Zombie scientist Sonia Melo awarded by AstraZeneca

  1. Ana Pedro

    Is this really surprising? Signs of a system without any solution
    That is way ABIC fight will never get to an end


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  3. Grizzly

    Serious industrial money may not have been invested into Codiak Biosciences, since the large investments appear to have been made by the Alaska Permanent Fund (a reason for the Codiak name choice). The money in the Alaska Permanent Fund belongs to the citizens of Alaska, and thus should be considered public money. For the investment, the Alaska Permanent Fund relied on advice of Steven Gillis in his function as managing director of ARCH Venture Partners. Steven Gillis, according to this information , initiated Codiak Biosciences and became its chairman. It may be considered a worrisome combination of tasks, the role of adviser for the investment of public money, while being the chairman of the company into which the investment is made. The last large investment was made long after the problems with the Melo papers had surfaced.


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  5. Certainly the fact that Sonia’s current “boss” was a member of the jury had nothing to do with the award’s outcome…
    As with everything related with Sonia’s professional career, this award was also very transparent! Congrats!


  6. Grizzly


    You know many critical scientists. Have you considered setting up teams for supporting claims made under the False Claims Act?


    • Dear Grizzly, I am currently trying to prove to court that I myself never said the things I was sentenced and fined not to say again (donations welcome!). I understand that some academics fear no consequences of telling any lies or libel, what with their institutional protection. If Portuguese scientists are unable to deal with Melo now, they will soon learn to fear her, as her power grows. In science, revenge is a dish served daily.


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  8. And now she will have an employment contract (assistant researcher level) payed by FCT (main funding agency in Portugal).

    She got the top score among 1098 candidates. It seems that misconduct was also not a problem for the international reviewers.


  9. To add to the commentary of Silva, yes recently in Portugal was pusblished the results of the Individual Call to Scientific Employment Stimulus 2018. Yes, 2018. This call was heavily criticised, as only 8% of the scientist applicant got funding (there is even facebook group to protest like this one : ) At this occasion, indeed, Sonia Melo managed to got the maximum ranking possible (10/10 !, cf the excel file, first entry of the category assistant, here
    We can even admire her in white to protest against the low level of funding by FCT.


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