As someone with a strong connection to the Ruhrgebiet in Germany, and in particular to the city of Duisburg, I want to congratulate the University of Duisburg Essen to their stroke of genius 20 years ago in recruiting Dr George Iliakis as their faculty member and professor for medical radiation biology.
Professor Iliakis used to work at the Kimmel Cancer Center at Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, USA, and there he published his groundbreaking research on DNA damage and DNA repair, all of which will certainly pave the way to curing cancer. With Photoshop. Lots of it. You won’t believe how much, because the early 2000s were the Golden Age of Photoshop in biomedical sciences and everyone was doing it like there is no tomorrow. Come to think of it, many, if not all, of our today’s venerable grand old patriarchs of cancer research made it to where they are now also thanks to a certain artistic attitude to research data. Everyone wants their share of that past Photoshop stardom, and this is why the University Duisburg-Essen has cancer solved, all thanks to Professor George Iliakis.
Iliakis is one of these great old men of science we are supposed to admire, because they did so much for cancer research. A native Greek, Iliakis did his PhD in Frankfurt, Germany. In early 1980ies he moved to USA, because this is how German academia worked. You do your doctoral degree, then you go to America for some years, and then you return to your waiting faculty chair, celebrated as the master of the great art of American science, which is truly superior to everything the rest of the world ever achieved.
Iliakis stayed in USA for 18 years, and made a great career at Kimmel Cancer Center, as director of the Division of Experimental Radiation Oncology. But at some point Iliakis mysteriously had enough of American money and fame, so he left his huge American salary and his gigantic NIH funding behind, in order to move to the world-renowned university clinic of the world-top-ranking University of Duisburg-Essen in world’s fanciest location, the Ruhrgebiet, surprisingly modestly funded by the DFG. Professor Iliakis will soon retire, having trained many young scientists in the high art of cancer research.
Now the image integrity sleuth Clare Francis looked at some of Iliakis papers from USA, posted his finds on PubPeer, and found artistic beauty where others would find despair.
J Guan , E Stavridi , DB. Leeper , G Iliakis Effects of hyperthermia on p53 protein expression and activity Journal of Cellular Physiology (2002) DOI: 10.1002/jcp.10069
Now, p53 is a very important protein in cancer research, and it can do funny things under hyperthermic conditions. Somehow some bands from Figure 1C cloned and inserted themselves into the gels of Figure 1B, having been cooled from 41°C to 37°C. Professor Iliakis and his first author Jun Guan however explained that this is perfectly OK:
“We noticed this issue before sending out our work for publication. As I mentioned in my previous comment, the highlighted bands of each control circled in the red and blue boxes were obtained in different experiments.”
For them, the issue is closed. Neither Iliakis nor Guan ever commented again, which is a pity.
Wang H, Perrault AR, Takeda Y, Qin W, Wang H, Iliakis G. Biochemical evidence for Ku-independent backup pathways of NHEJ Nucleic Acids Research (2003) doi: 10.1093/nar/gkg728
In these examples, Professor Iliakis’ group studied non-homologous end-joining (NHEJ) DNA repair and found out it to be actually a splicing tool in Adobe Photoshop. Basically, here damaged academic pride activates a Photoshop-mediated figure recombination process, where a piece of gel lanes gets replicated and spliced where it achieves novel results.
One year later, in the same journal, Iliakis studied how DNA is replicated after damage. It turned out, the same mechanism replicates gel bands, quite hilariously so.
X Wang , J Guan , B Hu , RS Weiss , G Iliakis , Y Wang Involvement of Hus1 in the chain elongation step of DNA replication after exposure to camptothecin or ionizing radiation Nucleic Acids Research (2004) doi: 10.1093/nar/gkh243
In America, they do big science and they do it properly. What you see here, is advanced US technology, sponsored by many millions from NIH. Of course University of Duisburg-Essen was honoured to host such star scientist in their university clinic. Just look at this high-tech gel:
Clare Francis suggested this figure looks like an artwork by Paul Klee.
Even the Editor-in-Chief of the journal Nucleic Acids Research (NAR) and University of Southampton professor Keith Fox was impressed by the artwork. Fox replied to Clare Francis in January 2020:
“Thank you for drawing these things to our attention. We will investigate and take any appropriate action.”
It is not clear which action Fox meant, since his own NAR until recently used to have a policy not to do anything about papers older than 2 years. The usual action NAR editors take in such cases, is to write to authors not to worry since the journal does not to intend to act in any way.
Much of Iliakis’ groundbreaking research at Kimmel Cancer Center, like this beautiful Wang et al NAR 2004 paper, was done in collaboration with the radiation oncologist Ya Wang, originally from China. Professor Wang now moved on to the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University in Atlanta, where she continues to receive much NIH money for her extraordinary cancer research. Wang’s specific qualifications are certified by around 20 papers flagged on PubPeer for Photoshop data enhancement.
This Iliakis-Wang collaboration is also artistically valuable, even if somewhat lazily executed.
H Wang, H Wang, SN. Powell, G Iliakis, Y Wang ATR affecting cell radiosensitivity is dependent on homologous recombination repair but independent of nonhomologous end joining Cancer Research (2004) doi: 10.1158/0008-5472.can-04-1289
What happens when you irradiate cells, is that gel bands get replicated in the process of non-homologous end joining.
That we already learned, from other Iliakis studies. But there is also this process of homologous recombination, where flow cytometry plots get replicated and recombined with different numbers. That happens when fantastic research needs to be published in a journal where nobody cares about such things. As AACR journal Cancer Research at least used to be. In fact, in 2002, Iliakis and Wang placed two papers in Cancer Research which have certain artistic quality to them.
X Wang , GC Li , G Iliakis , Y Wang Ku affects the CHK1-dependent G(2) checkpoint after ionizing radiation Cancer Research (2002) Nov 1;62(21):6031-4.
Apparently, there is a kind of checkpoint activated by the DNA damage where gel bands are forced, under gun point presumably, to exit their gel vehicles and join some previously arrested gel bands inside a different panel of the same figure, for interrogation. Sometime these gel bands are just shuffled back and forth inside same gel until they admit to smuggling and document forgery, like in this other Cancer Research paper:
XY Zhou , X Wang , B Hu , J Guan , G Iliakis , Y Wang An ATM-independent S-phase checkpoint response involves CHK1 pathway Cancer Research (2002) Mar 15;62(6):1598-603.
The paper recycles a blot from Zhou et al 2002 (by Profs Wang and Iliakis). Also,two Cancer Research papers from 2002 share a joint figure, even if they are supposed to show different experiments with different antisense oligonucleotide sequences:
As reminder, these papers were all published after 2001, when Iliakis moved to Essen, most of them bear his Ruhrgebiet affiliation. I personally am enormously proud for the University of Duisburg-Essen. Professor Iliakis is an asset, may he never retire.
Retraction Watch now reported that Ya Wang was found guilty of research fraud by HHS-ORI:
“Ya Wang, who retired from Emory a year ago, “falsified protein immunoblot data by reusing and relabeling the same images to represent different experimental conditions in mammalian tissue culture models of DNA damage and repair in eighteen (18) figure panels in eleven (11) figures in one (1) grant application and six (6) published papers,” the ORI said.
Wang “neither admits nor denies” ORI’s findings of misconduct, according to the agency’s report on the case. She agreed to a four-year ban on any federal funding, and to correct or retract four papers..”
Iliakis is not co-author on any of these four. But Wang previously retracted 3 other papers, including the disastrous Wang et al NAR 2004 with Iliakis. So what did the University of Duisburg-Essen determine?
In April 2020, the university’s Ombudsman Ulrich Dührsen informed me:
“My investigation showed that the experiments described in the papers were carried out exclusively at the Thomas Jefferson University of Philadelphia. In no case was any data reported that was generated at the University of Duisburg-Essen.
During his time in Philadelphia, Prof. Iliakis was involved in the collection of data and their graphical representation for two of the total of nine publications. In a case that Prof. Iliakis has already commented on in PubPeer and which will shortly be explained in more detail with further information, in my opinion there was no reliable evidence of scientific misconduct [Guan et al 2020, -LS]. In the second case, as you and PubPeer suspect, several images were actually manipulated. An employee of Prof. Iliakis from his period of employment in Philadelphia confessed to this. The journal was informed of this fact, and the editor’s reaction to this misconduct will be published shortly [the retracted Wang et al 2004, the confessor being presumably Jun Guan, -LS].
In seven publications, Prof. Iliakis’ contribution was limited to assistance in embedding the results in the scientific knowledge and editing the text for an English-language journal. Prof. Iliakis was not involved in obtaining the research results and their graphic representation. He stated that at the time the manuscripts were prepared, he had no reason to believe that the data had been tampered with. The last author on this work was Prof. Ya Wang, who, after Prof. Iliakis moved to Essen in 2001, took over the management of the Department of Radiation Oncology at the Thomas Jefferson University of Philadelphia and later moved to the Emory University of Atlanta.
In summary, most of the evidence of scientific misconduct you have compiled was understandable to me. In no case were there any indications of an active role by Prof. Iliakis or his Essen working group in the suspected data manipulation. The investigation at the University of Duisburg-Essen was therefore terminated. At the same time, the ombudspersons of the Thomas Jefferson University of Philadelphia and the Emory University of Atlanta were informed of the suspected data manipulation.“
Back then, I was asked to treat this information confidentially, but now I informed Dührsen that I intend to publish the above statement to inform my readers, unless he has any updates. Dührsen, who despite retirement remains the university’s Ombudsman, hinted that nothing changed since. Meaning, Iliakis was never investigated for the research he used to obtain grants and a professorship in Germany.
The guideline of the University Duisburg-Essen which the university itself provided me with, defines in §6g “Scientific Misconduct” as
“Active participation in the misconduct of others, especially
- through collusive collaboration in the case of forgeries committed by others, or
- through the co-authorship of publications containing falsifications“
I guess this applies to students only.
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