The titan of cancer research, one of Italy’s star scientists in USA, Pier Paolo Pandolfi, is officially still listed at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Harvard, as director of the cancer genetics program. Except that he isn’t there anymore.
Science journalist Michael Balter tweeted namely:
“#Cancer researcher Pier Pandolfi was forced to leave Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center because of #MeToo #STEMToo allegations (kept secret.) He has now found a home at DRI and Renown Health. @BIDMChealth has passed the harasser”
#MeToo is the well-known code for sexual harassment and sexual abuse. The news was independently confirmed by my own source, who indicated to me already in early November 2019 that Pandolfi left Harvard, back then without having any further details or proof. The same source now confirmed that sexual harassment allegations were indeed raised against Pandolfi.
Noteworthy, Pandolfi was also known in the scientific community for pushing unreliable research results. 30 papers of his are discussed on PubPeer, but apparently suspected research misconduct was not the reason why Pandolfi left Harvard.
Two research institutions meanwhile proudly announced being graced by Pandolfi’s arrival. Harvard Medical School remains completely silent, even though Pandolfi was using his Harvard affiliation (and no other) just last week.
That was a logical destination for a native Italian who lost his once grand standing in USA. It also fits that five years ago, Pandolfi was “knighted” by the Republic of Italy and received the title of the “Officer of the Order of the Star of Italy” from the Italian President. Italian academia is quite corruption-ridden and often celebrates the most inappropriate people.
The Istituto Veneto di Medicina Molecolare (VIMM) in Padova, run by the Fondazione per la Ricerca Biomedica Avanzata di Padova, announced on 20 May 2020 to have a new scientific director: Pandolfi. The VIMM institutional website prefers to keep its leadership team secret, but the foundation lists Luca Scorrano as the current scientific director of VIMM.
We also learn elsewhere that the foundation’s director is a certain Francesco Pagano, very excited to welcome Pandolfi. Another senior scientist featuring in the news announcement is Andrea Alimonti, who recently published a paper together with Pagano proposing to treat COVID-19 with “androgen-deprivation therapies”, an idea which grows increasingly popular since more men than women die from the coronavirus. This fits nicely, because also Pandolfi is already working on coronavirus therapies, together with Italian partners:
Pandolfi is quoted in Italian newspapers:
“It makes me very proud to take the leadership of VIMM and to be able to bring my long American experience back to Italy. The basis of our daily work will be research of the highest level in order to develop a true medicine of “ultra-precision”, in order to cure still incurable diseases that still afflict humanity today “
VIMM scientific advisory board however includes some real stars: Jean-Pierre Changeux, emeritus of Institut Pasteur, who most recently proposed tobacco products as COVID-19 preventive, stem cell luminary Rudolph Jaenisch, also from MIT David Sabatini (my readers will understand now why VIMM recruited Pandolfi) and even the late Sir Michael Berridge (who died in February, but apparently still advises VIMM).
The other appointment: Nevada.
On 18 May 2020, a press release was issued that Pandolfi will join the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Reno, Nevada, to become Director of the Renown Institute for Cancer at the DRI’s Renown Institute for Health Innovation, whatever that is. If you never heard of DRI and their Gilead-sponsored Renown Institute, in biomedical context at least, this is exactly why Pandolfi goes there, because no serious US university will take him anymore apparently. It is Pandolfi’s last anchor in the USA, but how will he divide his work between leading VIMM in Italy and DRI in Nevada?
The press release quotes the celebrity arrival:
“Dr. Pandolfi will divide his time between Reno and Italy, also leading a cancer research institute in his home country that will foster knowledge exchange and international cancer research collaborations between Italy and Nevada.
“As a cancer researcher, my mission is to cure cancer. The Healthy Nevada Project and the combined resources of Renown Health and DRI give us access to an unprecedented amount of longitudinal data and the valuable genetic information we need to continue to improve our understanding of the molecular mechanisms of cancer and tailor approaches for treatments and cures that are unique to each individual” said Dr. Pandolfi.
“I am proud to take the unique resource of the Healthy Nevada Project, and use the information to accelerate our work to provide a population-level view of those factors that drive cancer, build better models and perhaps, timely new treatments. I am excited to build a strong collaborative bridge between the state of Nevada with our colleagues in Italy and across Europe, which will allow for the exchange of research fellows, physicians, scientists, and interns,” added Pandolfi.”
Read between the lines: no research grants or any financial or material support worth mentioning is on offer for Pandolfi’s new lab at DRI, and the Italians for sure will not be sharing either. The DRI and VIMM are apparently gambling on the NIH and the EU Commission, respectively, to not know why Pandolfi left Harvard and to cough up lots of grant cash because he is such a star.
I previously discussed some Pandolfi papers in an earlier article about US cancer researchers. Here it is again:
S Zhong , P Salomoni , S Ronchetti , A Guo , D Ruggero , PP Pandolfi Promyelocytic leukemia protein (PML) and Daxx participate in a novel nuclear pathway for apoptosis The Journal of Experimental Medicine (2000) doi: 10.1084/jem.191.4.631
In both figures, someone inadvertently copy-pasted several bands, flipped them, stretched and retouched where needed, and voila, loading control for 8 lanes is ready. Happens daily. Another example of Pandolfi’s quality cancer research:
BS Carver , J Tran , A Gopalan , Z Chen , S Shaikh , A Carracedo , A Alimonti , C Nardella , S Varmeh , PT Scardino , C Cordon-Cardo , W Gerald , PP Pandolfi Aberrant ERG expression cooperates with loss of PTEN to promote cancer progression in the prostate Nature Genetics (2009) doi: 10.1038/ng.370
An image of a cell culture, copy-pasted and differently cropped by mistake of oversight to stand in for two different experiments. Not the only mistake in that paper: an gel image got re-used also.
E. M. Rego , L.-Z. He , R. P. Warrell , Z.-G. Wang , P. P. Pandolfi Retinoic acid (RA) and As2O3 treatment in transgenic models of acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) unravel the distinct nature of the leukemogenic process induced by the PML-RARalpha and PLZF-RARalpha oncoproteins Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2000) doi: 10.1073/pnas.180290497
How can the same cell reappear in different images of physically different experiments? That was a “communicated” paper, meaning a friendly NAS member submitted it without proper peer review, but on endorsement from other friends.
C Giorgi , K Ito , HK Lin , C Santangelo , MR Wieckowski , M Lebiedzinska , A Bononi , M Bonora , J Duszynski , R Bernardi , R Rizzuto , C Tacchetti , Paolo P , PP Pandolfi PML regulates apoptosis at endoplasmic reticulum by modulating calcium release Science (2010) doi: 10.1126/science.1189157
That image duplication (shifted and zoomed!) was spotted by Elisabeth Bik, presumable one among a number of problematic Science papers she reported to the journal’s editors years ago, to no avail.
L Ma , J Teruya-Feldstein , P Bonner , R Bernardi , DN Franz , D Witte , C Cordon-Cardo , PP Pandolfi Identification of S664 TSC2 phosphorylation as a marker for extracellular signal-regulated kinase mediated mTOR activation in tuberous sclerosis and human cancer Cancer Research (2007) doi: 10.1158/0008-5472.can-06-4798
Are those really neighbouring tissue sections stained with different antibodies, highlighted in Figure 3A? Not likely, sequential sections are shown in other panels of this figure, and they don’t look identical. These two endometrium images seem to be same image, just shifted and colour-adjusted.
In 2016, a Cell paper from Pandolfi lab was corrected for a duplicated FACS plot. Other papers remain untouched.
Regarding Pandolfi’s case: I will update this article when I obtain more information about his abrupt and stealth departure from Harvard.
Wolfgang Baumeister, member of VIMM Scientific Advisory Board and Max-Planck-Institute director in Germany, wrote to me:
“As the chair of the VIMM’s Scientific Advisory Board I want to let you know that this board was never consulted about Pandolfi’s appointment as the VIMM’s Scientific Director.
On 22 May, 2020 I wrote to Professor Francesco Pagano:
… I am writing this email in my role as the chair of the Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) of the VIMM. I was not amused to learn via various media about the change in the VIMM’s leadership, i. e. the appointment of Pier Paolo Pandolfi as its scientific director. This appointment became effective without any consultation with the SAB, nor were we informed about it. This is perceived as an affront. ….
I hope this clarifies the role and position of the SAB.”
Italian media started reporting. Corriere del Veneto writes that the entire scientific advisory board of VIMM announced to resign in protest against Pandolfi’s appointment. Fondation’s President Pagano is quoted:
“We have chosen to bring one of the greatest researchers in the world to Padua, and this of course has created a bit of turmoil and discontent. The appointment of the scientific committee is due to expire at the end of the year, the new director has the task of reorganizing it and therefore we had already planned to have to reappoint it, if the members all resign, it’s their choice. Pandolfi has no problem whatsoever, those accusations are just illusions.”
“May 2020. To accelerate the development of antivirals to address the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Sidhu teamed up with Dr. Suresh K. Jain and Dr. Pier Paolo Pandolfi to found the new biotechnology company Virna Therapeutics. The company will leverage the expertise of the founding partners and will use several strategies to target the SARS-CoV-2 virus, including antibodies and protein-based enzyme inhibitors engineered at TRAC. Read the press release here.“
And here is Pandolfi on 29 May 2020 discussing how to save the world from the coronavirus with the Ambassador of Italy to the US, Armando Varricchio, and the Director of Science and Technology Policy of the White House, Kelvin Droegemeier.
The entire VIMM scientific advisory board plus the current scientific director Luca Scorrano resigned. More and more Italian newspapers report, especially Corriere della Sera, who found out the details of sexual harassment charges in Harvard, which led to Pandolfi’s firing on 23 May 2019, a year before he joined VIMM:
“It all started in February 2019, when a researcher from the laboratory directed by Pandolfi (laboratory where his wife also works) turns to the leadership of the University to file a complaint. The accusation is heavy: the young woman claims that for almost a year she would have been the center of her boss’ attention, such as to have caused her not only serious internal disturbances but also professional and career difficulties. The young woman reports that she has received appreciation in public; but not only. She explains that the professor has been sending her sentimental emails for months and that constantly requested to talk to her. Twice, months later, she reminds the professor that his attentions gave her in serious embarrassment and asks him to keep the conversations on work issues. Pandolfi however does not stop. Keeps on writing them. He sends her songs. He repeats that he would like to talk to her.”
Corriere della Sera even interviewed Pandolfi who admits the affair, saying that he just likes to hug people and “I have been investigated and I apologized“:
“The conclusion was that it was a marginal episode, contained and that I am not some scoundrel who goes after any woman in the lab. In essence, it was a romantic misdeed. Non sexual. “
Pandolfi then says that he “never used offensive or vulgar terms in emails” and that “If anyone was to be angry it was my wife. And she understood that I had a moment of weakness“. He denied claims from Boston sources that he hasn’t been seen in his Harvard lab since 2019.
Corriere then asks “Schneider and Balter claim that Harvard forced you to leave. It’s true?“, and Pandolfi replies:
“I will act legally against these two gentlemen, who bring charges against me.“
There was a press conference at VIMM where the President of Italian Senate, Elisabetta Casellati, tried to circumstantially defend Pandolfi’s appointment by saying that VIMM research is needed to develop a therapy against COVID-19. Read this great article in Padova Oggi, it has videos!
And do read this reader’s comment about Pandolfi’s research irreproducibility and his bullying of lab members.
It seems, Italian academia is about to have its own #MeTooSTEM moment, thanks to the Pandolfi affair. Antonella Viola, professor at University of Padua and former scientific director of VIMM, protested against Pandolfi’s behaviour and the excuses in an open letter in Corriere, titled: “I was molested by my boss, I will tell you how it feels“.
Pandolfi’s appointment at VIMM has now been revoked.
This is the statement of the Foundation in Padua:
“The Board of Directors of the Foundation for Advanced Biomedical Research today resolved to revoke the appointment of prof. Pier Paolo Pandolfi as Scientific Director of VIMM.
The decision was taken with deep regret in consideration of the extraordinary scientific qualities of Prof. Pandolfi and the research development potential that these would certainly have guaranteed at the highest levels, but nevertheless it becomes necessary, after learning the story in which Prof. Pandolfi was involved in Harvard University, of which the Foundation had not been informed.
The Foundation, in light of the values that characterize its activity, cannot neglect the story of which Prof. Pandolfi was the protagonist, without compromising the image and reputation of the Institute, its researchers and supporters.
The Foundation will proceed as soon as possible to appoint the new Scientific Director of VIMM in order to guarantee the continuity of the research activity.”
Wolfgang Baumeister informed me that the entire scientific advisory board has indeed resigned. He wrote to me:
“We are working to ensure that PPP’s appointment is revoked and that [Foundation’s President] Pagano himself resigns.“
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