Bullying and harassment 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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62 comments on “The Crooks of CRUK

  1. WJ Pannekoek

    Thanks for this article and your insights. Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the Labuschagne 2019 figure. Tom20 is a 16 kD protein, and therefore might have run at the very bottom of the gel. The bottom part of a gel can look weird on membranes and show bending patterns you don’t see in the rest of the gel. Yes, for a publication I myself would have rerun the samples, but not everybody cares about appearance.

    As for the marks at the side: it’s the protein marker. In our lab we use a anti-rabbit-HRP that aspecifically binds to marker bands. Our anti-mouse-HRP does not. Hence, in some stainings you see the marker, in others not. Something like that probably has happened here as well.

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  5. Mol Cell Biol. 2004 Nov; 24(22): 10083–10098.doi: 10.1128/MCB.24.22.10083-10098.2004PMCID: PMC525491PMID: 15509808

    Interferon Regulatory Factor 1 Binding to p300 Stimulates DNA-Dependent Acetylation of p53David Dornan,1,† Mirjam Eckert,2 Maura Wallace,2 Harumi Shimizu,1,† Eleanor Ramsay,2 Ted R. Hupp,1 and Kathryn L. Ball2,*

    Author information 
    CRUK p53 Signal Transduction Group,1 CRUK Interferon and Cell Signalling Group, Cell Signalling Unit, Cancer Research Centre, University of Edinburgh, Western General Hospital, Edinburgh, United Kingdom2
    CRUK p53 Signal Transduction Group,1 CRUK Interferon and Cell Signalling Group, Cell Signalling Unit, Cancer Research Centre, University of Edinburgh, Western General Hospital, Edinburgh, United Kingdom2

    *Corresponding author. Mailing address: CRUK Interferon and Cell Signalling Group, Cell Signalling Unit, Cancer Research Centre, University of Edinburgh, Western General Hospital, Crewe Road South, Edinburgh EH4 2XR, United Kingdom. Phone: 44 (0) 131-777-3500. Fax: 44 (0) 131-777-3520. E-mail: ku.ca.de@llaB.nyrhtaK.†Present address: Genentech Inc., South San Francisco, CA 94080.

    Problematic data figure 2A. Much more similar after vertical compression than expected.

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  6. Mol Cell Biol. 2004 Jun; 24(12): 5606–5619.doi: 10.1128/MCB.24.12.5606-5619.2004

    PMCID: PMC419867PMID: 15169919

    Docking-Dependent Regulation of the Rb Tumor Suppressor Protein by Cdk4

    Maura Wallace and Kathryn L. BallAuthor information CRUK Laboratories, University of Dundee Medical School, Dundee DD1 9SY, United Kingdom
    CRUK Laboratories, University of Dundee Medical School, Dundee DD1 9SY, United Kingdom
    Corresponding author. Mailing address: CRUK Laboratories, University of Dundee Medical School, Dundee DD1 9SY, United Kingdom. Phone: 01382 425 582. Fax: 01382 496  363. E-mail: k.l.ball@dundee.ac.uk

    Presently here: Kathryn Ball | The University of Edinburgh Chair in Biochemistry and Cell Signalling
    Cancer Research UK Edinburgh Centre
    MRC Institute of Genetics & Molecular Medicine
    Kathryn.Ball@ed.ac.uk

    Problematic data figure 6. Much more similar than expected.

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  7. EMBO J. 2002 Dec 16; 21(24): 6771–6780.
    doi: 10.1093/emboj/cdf684PMCID: PMC139104PMID: 12485998

    PDK1-dependent activation of atypical PKC leads to degradation of the p21 tumour modifier protein

    Mary T. Scott, Angela Ingram, and Kathryn L. Ball1

    Author information

    Cancer Research UK Laboratories, University of Dundee Medical School, Dundee DD1 9SY, UK 1Corresponding author e-mail: k.l.ball@dundee.ac.uk

    Problematic data figure 7. Much more similar and different than expected.

    Problematic data figure 1D. Much more similar than expected.

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  9. Mol Cell Biol. 2002 Dec; 22(23): 8135–8143. PMCID: PMC134058 PMID: 12417717
    doi: 10.1128/MCB.22.23.8135-8143.2002

    Biallelic Mutations in p16INK4a Confer Resistance to Ras- and Ets-Induced Senescence in Human Diploid Fibroblasts

    Thomas J. Huot,1,† Janice Rowe,1 Mark Harland,2 Sarah Drayton,1 Sharon Brookes,1 Chandra Gooptu,2 Patricia Purkis,3 Mike Fried,4 Veronique Bataille,5 Eiji Hara,6 Julia Newton-Bishop,2 and Gordon Peters1,*

    Author information
    Cancer Research UK London Research Institute, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London WC2A 3PX,1 Cancer Research UK Genetic Epidemiology Laboratory, St. James University Hospital, Leeds LS9 7TF,2 Cancer Research UK Skin Tumour Laboratory, Centre for Cutaneous Research, Royal London School of Medicine, London E1 2AT,3 Dermatology/Twin Research and Genetic Epidemiology Unit, St. Thomas Hospital, London SE1 7EH,5 Paterson Institute for Cancer Research, Christie Hospital NHS Trust, Manchester M20 4BX, United Kingdom,6 University of California at San Francisco Comprehensive Cancer Center, San Francisco, California 941154
    *Corresponding author. Mailing address: Cancer Research UK London Research Institute, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London WC2A 3PX, United Kingdom. Phone: (44) 0207 269 3049. Fax: (44) 0207 269 3479.
    E-mail: gordon.peters@cancer.org.uk
    †Present address: T.J.H. Genopole, 91057 Evry Cedex, France.

    Data in Mol Cell Biol. 2002 Dec; 22(23): 8135–8143 from EMBO J. 2002 Jun 17; 21(12): 2936–2945,
    yet there are differences which don’t make sense.

    Problematic data figure 3B. Much more similar and different than expected.

    EMBO J. 2002 Jun 17; 21(12): 2936–2945.doi: 10.1093/emboj/cdf289PMCID: PMC126048PMID: 12065407

    INK4a-deficient human diploid fibroblasts are resistant to RAS-induced senescence

    Sharon Brookes, Janice Rowe, Margarida Ruas, Susana Llanos, Paula A. Clark, Martine Lomax, Marion C. James, Radost Vatcheva,1 Stewart Bates,2 Karen H. Vousden,2 David Parry,3 Nelleke Gruis,4 Nico Smit,4 Wilma Bergman,4 and Gordon Peters5

    Author information 

    Molecular Oncology and 1Human Cytogenetics Laboratories, Cancer Research UK London Research Institute, Lincolns Inn Fields, London WC2A 3PX, UK, 2NCI-FCRDC, Frederick, MD 21702-1201, 3DNAX Research Institute, Palo Alto, CA 94304-1104, USA and 4Department of Dermatology, Leiden University Medical Centre, 2333 AL Leiden, The Netherlands 

    5Corresponding author e-mail: gordon.peters.

    Senior author is dead, but the extant authors could clear up the problematic data.

    https://www.crick.ac.uk/news/2016-09-07-gordon-peters-1948-2016

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  10. https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-us/our-organisation/how-we-spend-your-money

    Our CEO, Michelle Mitchell, was paid £215,500 base salary between April 2020 and March 2021.

    “Base salary” implies there is more.

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  11. Zebedee

    Apoptosis. 2005 Mar;10(2):301-11. doi: 10.1007/s10495-005-0804-8.

    Nuclear BAG-1 expression inhibits apoptosis in colorectal adenoma-derived epithelial cells

    J D Barnes 1, N J Arhel, S S Lee, A Sharp, M Al-Okail, G Packham, A Hague, C Paraskeva, A C Williams

    Affiliation
    1Cancer Research UK Colorectal Tumour Biology Research Group, Department of Pathology and Microbiology, School of Medical Sciences, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK.

    PMID: 15843891
    DOI: 10.1007/s10495-005-0804-8

    Figure 3A. Much more similar than expected.

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    • Zebedee

      Additional problematic data Apoptosis . 2005 Mar;10(2):301-11.

      Figures 1B and 3A. Much more similar and different than expected.

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    • Zebedee

      Another professor Ann C Williams “Bag-1” paper.

      Int J Cancer . 2003 Sep 1;106(3):364-71. doi: 10.1002/ijc.11257.
      The retinoblastoma protein interacts with Bag-1 in human colonic adenoma and carcinoma derived cell lines
      Nathalie J Arhel 1, Graham Packham, Paul A Townsend, Tracey J Collard, Akram M H-Zadeh, Adam Sharp, Ramsey I Cutress, Karim Malik, Angela Hague, Chris Paraskeva, Ann C Williams

      Affiliation
      1Cancer Research UK Colorectal Tumour Biology Research Group, Department of Pathology and Microbiology, University of Bristol, School of Medical Sciences, Bristol BS8 1TD, United Kingdom.
      PMID: 12845674
      DOI: 10.1002/ijc.11257

      https://pubpeer.com/publications/4D4CAE2CC16006D3E149A9821F44B2#2

      Figure 1.

      Third author, Paul A Townsend already has 4 retractions.
      http://retractiondatabase.org/RetractionSearch.aspx?#?auth%3dPaul%2bA%2bTownsend

      Presently professor University of Manchester.
      https://www.research.manchester.ac.uk/portal/en/researchers/paul-townsend(38f8617a-b808-4372-bd02-b3fa9477fafa).html

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      • Zebedee

        Br J Cancer. 2003 Oct 6; 89(7): 1358–1365.
        Published online 2003 Sep 30. doi: 10.1038/sj.bjc.6601266

        PMCID: PMC2394298
        PMID: 14520472

        Increased NF-κB DNA binding but not transcriptional activity during apoptosis induced by the COX-2-selective inhibitor NS-398 in colorectal carcinoma cells

        H J M Smartt,1 D J E Elder,1,3 D J Hicks,1 N A Williams,2 and C Paraskeva1,*

        Author information

        1Cancer Research UK Colorectal Tumour Biology Research Group, Department of Pathology and Microbiology, School of Medical Sciences, University of Bristol, University Walk, Bristol BS8 1TD, UK
        2Department of Pathology and Microbiology, Division of Immunology, School of Medical Sciences, University of Bristol, University Walk, Bristol BS8 1TD, UK
        *Cancer Research UK Colorectal Tumour Biology Research Group, Department of Pathology and Microbiology, School of Medical Sciences, University of Bristol, University Walk, Bristol BS8 1TD, UK.
        E-mail: c.paraskeva@bristol.ac.uk
        3DJE Elder’s current address: Department of Biochemistry, School of Medical Sciences, University of Bristol, University Walk, Bristol BS8 1TD, UK.

        Figure 3. Much more similar than expected.

        Figure 2A. Much more similar than expected.

        Figures 2B and 4A. Much more similar than expected.

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  12. Zebedee

    https://www.bristol.ac.uk/cellmolmed/news/2017/chris-retirement-party.html

    “The Faculty’s Dean, Professor George Banting was on hand to say a few words. He and Chris have worked together since the early 1980s when they worked at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in Lincoln’s Inn Fields where they shared a lab space for a time.

    Chris moved to Bristol to take up a Lectureship in 1984 and has been a core member of the School for 33 years. He became a Senior Lecturer in ’91 and was then promoted to a Chair in ’93, which George added ‘shows the esteem in which he was held at the time and still is.’

    Chris became one of the leading researchers in bowel cancer, and as George said ‘he didn’t just sit on his backside and do the science, he got out there and communicated the importance of his work and that of others to the wider community, and has done so very effectively over many years.’

    He has been an extremely popular lecturer and tutor, with a reputation for telling a few dodgy jokes. He had to be persuaded to take on the role of Head of School, but has done an exceptional job, setting the bar high for recruiting and has shown strong support for staff and students in his time in the role.”

    The data:-

    https://pubpeer.com/publications/4E6177BECC4DBE4E6BAE78261804F8

    https://pubpeer.com/publications/4D4CAE2CC16006D3E149A9821F44B2

    https://pubpeer.com/publications/5CBA604150F4205D56815D5DD904E4

    https://pubpeer.com/publications/E068225A6269127191351A856E38BC

    https://pubpeer.com/publications/CA4B8E68C04D8C8773F40D21413F74

    https://pubpeer.com/publications/049921D2622EF394B61DBA6CD043F3

    https://pubpeer.com/publications/997637442972A31C485620DABDED74

    https://pubpeer.com/publications/578ABD906FF7405242D0F50CAF9B63

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