Research integrity

The Crooks of CRUK

Cancer Research UK is a charity which relies on donations, volunteer work and fundraising. What if these citizens knew their money goes to fund bad science?

If you are a British cancer researcher, chances are you will be applying to the charity Cancer Research UK (CRUK) for funding. Here a tip how you can succeed getting that money British people donate to cancer research: be open about having published some fraud, and you will receive a conspirational nod.

Don’t believe me? The University of Manchester-based immunologist Silvia Bulfone-Paus receives CRUK funding despite past massive misconduct findings and forced resignation as institute director in Germany, after 13 retractions (read more here). More recently, CRUK announced to have no inclination whatsoever to investigate the accusations of bullying and research misconduct in the Manchester CRUK institute of Richard Marais.

CRUK Chief Scientist Karen Vousden never replied to the cries for help posted as comments under my article, but as I demonstrate below, she has good reasons to be disinterested in this affair. Both Vousden and Marais are mentees of the late Chris Marshall, a legend of British cancer research. Marshall’s lab was at ICR London; this CRUK-funded cancer research centre has its own issues with research integrity and bullying, but what with ICR’s past and present leadership (Alan Ashworth and Paul Workman) being part of the problem, you can’t expect much.

Richard Marais: “Feel the power”

Regarding the Marais affair in Manchester (a deleted press release, overruled misconduct findings and cancelled retractions, all because the accused former Marais postdoc Romina Girotti lawyered-up), complaints like this were posted in the comment section on my site:

I had the misfortune to work with Richard Marais who has literally made my life hell. He was insecure in the extreme, to the point that anyone who managed to do their job well, who had friends in work or generally just got on with people, became the subject of his vitriol. […] I was denigrated and humiliated constantly, when eventually, I made a bullying/harassment case to HR. My story was swept under the carpet because he was the director of the Institute“.

Or this comment:

for so many years, we have been cordial to a man who used every chance to humiliate us in public and to block our careers. We are and we were ashamed to describe the details of what we witnessed and tried hard to forget. When so many former Marais alumni posted in this blog what Richard Marais has done to them, we had to confront our cowardice. As others, we felt that nobody would care about our pain and suffer, likely as an effect of the many times we were told, especially by Richard, that we were nobody.”

Here a comment from a clinician:

Richard Marais can push his lab members to suffer whatever is necessary to make his own way. Richard Marais can ask his postdocs to sit on his chair “to feel the power”. Richard Marais can call his postdocs “bodies” (on their back) because they are only occupying space in his lab and “not producing”. […] Richard Marais’ hate towards clinicians is ridiculous and he enjoys making their life miserable in his lab“.

Marais really does not sound like a nice person:

Marais has made a career out of bullying his trainees, establishing fear as a policy in his lab, making students and postdocs cry and humiliating them. He used to brag about it and nobody dared to stop him. Human resources staff were accomplices of it. He also bragged about his expensive life and frequent first class flights and felt good by asking British Airways staff “do you know who I am?”. Truly pathetic. He enjoyed having tearful students presenting 2h-straight presentations at lab retreats with their voice broken. As a ‘good bye’ from his lab people were given the last instruction: you cannot work in melanoma and your ideas belong to me.

How exactly is it good for science to usurp a research field as you own private fiefdom and to ban others from working on melanoma? How exactly is this beneficial for patients and their families, whose charity funds Marais’ research and his gigantic salary? Yet this suppression of science is apparently exactly what Marais is free to do:

He pushes junior PIs to not do research projects that might have competing interests with his lab. A former CRUK MI PI was asked to change his research focus to lung cancer and stop any melanoma work because it was competing with him.”

Bullying and research misconduct often go hand in hand. How else do you sanction lab members who refuse to produce the results you want to see as PI? Marais was described as “a total bully which let his postdocs to fight like gladiators to publish first (likely at the cost of quality)”.

In this regard, see this CRUK insider comment, about Marais and his CRUK Manchester colleague (and ex-wife) Caroline Springer:

“Caroline Springer selectively deletes data she does not like at lab meetings. Richard Marais approves this. Staff members can’t argue against her decisions. […] Filing a complaint puts our job in jeopardy. Caroline also runs her lab in a suspicious manner, hiding information for a part of her group and viceversa. She selects the experiments she wants to present in papers and meetings at Wellcome Trust and hides how many negatives there were. This has been ongoing for several years.”

One unrelated commenter said something similar:

I’ve sat at their joint Springer/Marais lab meetings thinking they are the worst scientists I’ve ever met. Not only they cherry pick the data they want, they force their staff to “decrease” the IC50 of a shitty LOX compounds orders of magnitude within a week time so they can reach their ‘milestones’ for Wellcome Trust. As if you could do magic. No research integrity at all.

This criticism by former lab member goes into a different direction:

Neither Richard Marais nor Caroline Springer have truly supported women in science. Quite the opposite, they have both banned them from working in similar research fields. It is ironic that Richard is an invited speaker of Women in Science Conferences“.

The Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) award is just an undeserved trophy for Marais, as other CRUK Manchester commenter confirms and adds:

His post docs get yelled at routinely, they cry in the bathroom, they are afraid to speak of truth and live in fear of Richard’s fury.
The fact is, CRUK MI has lost too many good staff since Richard took the directorship. I have had conversations with the leavers where they confessed that they can not work for such a director anymore without self loathing. […] Occasionally, people were brave enough to make official complains regarding Richard’s bullying […], but HR (directly managed by Richard) never responded
.”

It gets worse:

I have witnessed terrible scenes: women crying because of their public humiliation in front of their lab mates, Richard Marais enjoying seeing them crying while thinking they are weak. Those were tears of frustration and impotence. […] While Lab meetings were bad, private meetings could be worse because there were no witnesses. […] Fear has fueled our silence. Fear to lose our jobs, to be excluded from conferences, to not publish again, to not get funding for our research. […]
Note: Take this description and multiply by 3, that is the accurate description of Caroline Springer
“.

There are more comments, in same vein: bullying, harassment, lab members reduced to tears, alumni banned from working on melanoma, unreliable preclinical and clinical research. CRUK informed me that they forwarded the issue to University of Manchester, obviously on assumption that the university will continue doing the same as they did before: nothing. Maybe this comment will with time grow into something which will make the crooks of CRUK stop and think:

I am writing as someone who has raised over £5,000 for Cancer Research UK in sponsored runs in the last 10 years. I lost my wife to breast cancer in 2014. Another fundraiser passed on the link to your blog to me. I am deeply upset about these accusations against the professors in Manchester. If any of them are true I feel very betrayed.”

Another CRUK fundraiser demanded their £10k back: “I’ll give it to somewhere deserving“.

Original CRUK shop photo: CRUK charity Bideford

Karen Vousden: lifelong learning of data integrity

As it is common with the rotten fishes, they stink from the head down. Marais is one example, but let’s move one floor higher, to the top executive offices. Meet the official Chief Scientist of CRUK, Karen Vousden, internationally influential p53-oncosuppressor protein researcher, formerly director of the CRUK Beatson Institute in Glasgow and now at The Crick in London, and her exciting PubPeer record.

The PubPeer evidence is rather old, but being a busy scientist and CRUK exec, Professor Vousden has yet to find time to address the concerns. Let us start with this vintage p53 paper from the Vousden lab.

M Ashcroft, MHG Kubbutat, KH Vousden Regulation of p53 function and stability by phosphorylation Molecular and Cellular Biology (1999) doi: 10.1128/mcb.19.3.1751 

The evidence is 3 years old

All three lane pairs are same, as background pattern makes evident. That assay and the entire paper should have been disposed as radioactive waste, yet it was never even corrected.

The first author Margaret Ashcroft is now professor in Cambridge. Many Vousden lab alumni moved on to become today’s science elites. In the greater scheme of things, what do some fabricated gels matter?

p53 induces cell cycle arrest via protein p21, and this of course was studied by the Vousden lab in detail. Another vintage classic:

S Bates, KM Ryan, AC Phillips, KH Vousden Cell cycle arrest and DNA endoreduplication following p21Waf1/Cip1 expression Oncogene (1998) doi: 10.1038/sj.onc.1202104 

Apparently, some flow cytometry files got accidentally duplicated. Yet the green/blue labelled ones are not identical. They seem to derive from the same FACS measurement file, but re-gated. Something unlikely to happen by a mistake of oversight, indeed such manipulations are much present in the papers of the unashamed data manipulator Giorgio Zauli.

The evidence is 3 years old, nothing has happened since. Worth noting that the first author and former Vousden mentee Stewart Bates became a senior executive scientist at GlaxoSmithKline. A similar thing happened in another Vousden paper, with Bates as coauthor:

AC Phillips, S Bates, KM Ryan, K Helin, KH Vousden Induction of DNA synthesis and apoptosis are separable functions of E2F-1 Genes & Development (1997) doi: 10.1101/gad.11.14.1853 

Also here same flow cytometry sample was apprently re-gated by software, and wham, one experimental sample became two utterly different ones. It is worth mentioning who another coauthor on that Vousden lab is: Kristian Helin, then at IEO in Milan, where he published a number of papers now discussed on PubPeer. You can read about Helin’s stellar and more recently less stellar career in cancer research here. You know, birds of a feather flock together.

In this vein, Vousden demonstrated her attitude to gel splicing and loading controls in this paper contributed with the US star cancer researcher Arnold Levine (who also doesn’t care much how his papers get made):

MH Kubbutat, RL Ludwig, AJ Levine, KH Vousden Analysis of the degradation function of Mdm2 Cell growth & differentiation: AACR (1999) Vol. 10, 87-92

The last lanes on the Mdm and p53 gels is spliced on. But there is no splicing on the loading control GFP. That last lane is very important, it namely shows that for that last sample (a certain deletion mutant Mdm protein), highlighted bands are much weaker or much stronger than with the wildtype or other mutants. But how do we know if that last sample is unadulterated, since it is spliced on and the loading control comes from a separate gel?

There are other examples of problematic gel splicing in Vousden papers, eg this Blagosklonny et al Carcinogenesis 2001. The practice was never actually accepted, after all this is exactly why good scientists load their samples on same gel, and check that same gel for equal loading: to be able to compare the signals properly. But some scientists already already “know” the result, you know.

Another star US collaborator one should have been careful with is Pier Paolo Pandolfi (here his PubPeer record).

R Bernardi, PP Scaglioni, S Bergmann, HF Horn, KH Vousden, PP Pandolfi PML regulates p53 stability by sequestering Mdm2 to the nucleolus Nature cell biology (2004) doi: 10.1038/ncb1147

An accident? Can one really confuse PML protein image with that of p53, and then crop it? In this case, Vousden is the p53 expert, the experiment might have been made in her Beatson lab.

Just when Vousden was moving from Glasgow to The Crick in London, she published this paper with her Beatson Institute colleagues:

P Lee, AK Hock, KH Vousden, EC Cheung p53- and p73-independent activation of TIGAR expression in vivo Cell Death and Disease (2015) doi: 10.1038/cddis.2015.205 

The last three bands of the TIGAR and CDK4 gels share many common features and artefacts to manifest the suspicion that they show the same signal. It is not clear if they are different film exposures of same western blot, or digitally processed duplications. In any case, it is not clear how that could have happened by chance or mistake.

Maybe Vousden is just unlucky with who she works with. In 1989, she published a paper in The Lancet, which was immediately retracted by her two coauthors John Tidy and Paul Farrell, for being irreproducible. However, Vousden’s name is not on the retraction notice, she just stayed out of it:

Now one could think: well, the sins of youth. The Vousden lab surely matured and does only the bestest and the most reliable of sciences now. Although it does seem Professor Vousden still has very little understanding of the concept of data integrity. This paper Labuschagne et al Cell Metabolism 2019 was published just 2 months ago:

Loading control is from a different gel, a very bad practice. And yet, nobody cared, in 2019.

A PubPeer commenter Plukenetia Lehmanniana jumped to Vousden’s defence:

Would it be nice to also see the Ponceau staining? Certainly. Is there any reason to believe that this is anything other than a well-done experiment? In my opinion, no.

My reply “no reason at all” with a hyperlink to Vousden’s PubPeer record did not pass moderation. It is namely unscientific and slanderous.

Now here is an idea: maybe certain CRUK top scientists would be more useful volunteering in CRUK charity shops?


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10 comments on “The Crooks of CRUK

  1. I think in principle I should apply for Cancer Research UK funding next year.
    Will let you know what happens.

    Like

  2. In that first pic of Caroline Springer, it looks like a drunken lab ladette may have barfed on her dress. My god. Hey big-pharma, do you really want to buy LOX inhibitors from this woman?

    Like

  3. https://www.eacr.org/mike-price-award/previous-winners

    2018 Mike Price Gold Medal Award winner: Karen Vousden

    In good company

    2014 Mike Price Gold Medal Award winner: José Baselga

    Top Sloan Kettering Cancer Doctor Resigns After Failing to Disclose Industry Ties

    Top Cancer Doctor, Forced Out Over Ties to Drug Makers, Joins Their Ranks

    Memorial Sloan Kettering Leaders Violated Conflict-of-Interest Rules, Report Finds

    Not one squeak about this from The European Association for Cancer Research

    Like

  4. Oncogene. 2004 Apr 29;23(20):3721-5.
    p73-alpha is capable of inducing scotin and ER stress.
    Terrinoni A1, Ranalli M, Cadot B, Leta A, Bagetta G, Vousden KH, Melino G.
    Author information
    1
    Biochemistry Laboratory, IDI-IRCCS, Department of Experimental Medicine and Biochemical Sciences, University of Rome ‘Tor Vergata’, 00133 Rome, Italy.

    Figure 1.

    Like

  5. “what with ICR’s past and present leadership (Alan Ashworth and Paul Workman) being part of the problem, you can’t expect much.”

    You hyper link to Paul Workman refers to one about the present CEO and President of ICR
    https://www.icr.ac.uk/our-research/researchers-and-teams/professor-paul-workman
    “Professor Paul Workman FMedSci, FRS is Chief Executive and President of The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR).”

    There is another article: https://forbetterscience.com/2018/09/06/fake-data-untouchable-men-and-guilty-women-at-icr-london/

    According to the Retraction Watch database:
    http://retractiondatabase.org/RetractionSearch.aspx#?auth%3dWorkman%252c%2bPaul

    Paul Workman has a 2019 retraction for “Falsification/Fabrication of Image” and a
    2019 correction in Molecular Cancer Therapeutics for “Concerns/Issues About Image”.

    https://mct.aacrjournals.org/site/misc/edboard.xhtml
    Deputy Editors
    Yubin Kang

    Akash Patnaik

    Puja Sapra

    Paul Workman

    Surely that is a Conflict of Interest?

    Such conflicts of interest have recently been documented at Retraction Watch:-
    inside a journal.
    https://retractionwatch.com/2019/10/31/plos-one-realizes-an-academic-editor-had-a-conflict-of-interest-that-the-publisher-says-it-now-tries-harder-to-avoid/
    inside an institute.
    https://retractionwatch.com/2019/10/29/no-possible-fraudulent-explanation-frequent-co-author-tasked-with-clearing-colleagues-of-image-manipulation/

    Paul Workman takes the biscuit as he was in charge of investigating himself in his own institue.

    Your link to Alan Ashworth gives his UCSF webpage.
    https://cancer.ucsf.edu/people/profiles/ashworth_alan
    “Prior to joining UCSF in January 2015, he served as Chief Executive of the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) and the Director of the Breakthrough Breast Cancer Research Centre in London, United Kingdom.”

    Problematic data Alan Ashworth.
    Some may be simple mistakes, others are more involved.

    https://pubpeer.com/publications/22A0D80CF891EEFEB7C23332484780
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/CECD3E767BD0AFA9DDB1BA919F663F
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/261D475F6640FC59C9A867EC7F5DD2
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/40975CCD671ACC13843AC53551942C
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/67F39E13B7C8B51E8F8F34D70AFF84
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/509134CE1EE1E6A1C7DEA161CB77CB
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/C2570E46E89E6746B01CF962D728A8

    Like

  6. Rotten from the top

    Has anyone seen D1ck Marais these days. I heard through the grapevine that he takes much needed mental health time away from work breaks. Translation:- taking business class flights to the Caribbean, where for a while, just for a while, he can brainwash himself that there isn’t a sh1t storm happening at CRUK MI. You see Richard, yes we know you read this blog, when Romina lawyered up, unbeknownst to her I imagine, she set a precedent. I look forward to the day where we will watch the tears roll down your face. This time it won’t be an Oscar winning performance you made in the Summer (probably you greatest achievement). But rather one where you are in the dock at court and you are checkmate. Slimy bstrd. Stop waisting the money of every day people and resign along with all your cronies in cahoots.

    Like

  7. Checkmate Richard

    There is hope: a class action lawsuit against Richard Marais and possibly CRUK will be presented in court very soon. Marais hides terrible crimes at the ICR and CRUK Manchester, why nobody talks about it? CRUK authorities actively ignore our S.O.S messages … We want Richard Marais OUT and in jail!!

    Like

  8. CRUK careless with donors’ contributions?

    The money.
    https://kclpure.kcl.ac.uk/portal/en/persons/farzin-farzaneh(1e1e3bfb-d4bc-4223-bdc3-63f46dd77c05)/projects.html?ordering=upmProjectOrderByEndDate&descending=true

    KHP Centre Award – Non-Clinical Training Award
    CRUK – Cancer Research UK

    Parker, P., Ciccarelli, F., Dazzi, F., Farzaneh, F., Hayday, A., Maher, J. et al.

    £3,771,843.89

    1/04/2017 → 30/03/2023

    Research Grant Studentship

    The scientific quality.
    https://retractionwatch.com/2019/11/04/exclusive-kings-college-london-finds-poor-research-practices-but-no-misconduct-in-two-recent-cases/#more-118381

    “The Panel has requested that Professors Farzaneh and Mufti provide notices of correction, publish errata, and/or provide amended figures to the following scientific journals: Molecular Therapy, Blood, Haematologica, Molecular and Cellular Biology, and Molecular Cancer Research.”

    Farzin Farzaneh penultimate author.

    Data in Toxicol Lett. 2009 Dec 15;191(2-3):118-22 looks very like data in J Leukoc Biol. 2005 Aug;78(2):503-14, yet experiments different.

    Toxicol Lett. 2009 Dec 15;191(2-3):118-22. doi: 10.1016/j.toxlet.2009.08.012. Epub 2009 Aug 19.
    RACK-1 overexpression protects against goniothalamin-induced cell death.
    Inayat-Hussain SH1, Wong LT, Chan KM, Rajab NF, Din LB, Harun R, Kizilors A, Saxena N, Mourtada-Maarabouni M, Farzaneh F, Williams GT.
    Author information
    1
    Toxicology and Biocompatibility Laboratory, Faculty of Allied Health Sciences, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

    J Leukoc Biol. 2005 Aug;78(2):503-14. Epub 2005 May 3.
    Functional expression cloning reveals a central role for the receptor for activated protein kinase C 1 (RACK1) in T cell apoptosis.
    Mourtada-Maarabouni M1, Kirkham L, Farzaneh F, Williams GT.
    Author information
    1
    School of Life Sciences, Keele University, Keele, ST5 5BG, UK.

    J Biol Chem. 2001 Apr 13;276(15):12068-75. Epub 2001 Jan 11.
    Selective cleavage of BLM, the bloom syndrome protein, during apoptotic cell death.
    http://www.jbc.org/content/276/15/12068.long
    Oliver Bischof‡§,¶‖, Sanjeev Galande‡§, Farzin Farzaneh¶, Terumi Kohwi-Shigematsu‡ and Judith Campisi‡**
    -Author Affiliations

    From the ‡Life Sciences Division, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley California 94720 and the ¶Department of Molecular Medicine, The Rayne Institute, Guy’s, Kuig’s and St. Thomas’ School of Medicine, King’s College, London SE5 9NU, United Kingdom

    Figure 5E. Much more similar after horizontal flip than you would expect.

    Like

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