Janine Erler is a star of Danish cancer research. She is professor at the University of Copenhagen, group leader at the university’s Biotech Research and Innovation Centre (BRIC) and member at the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters. Her earlier research led to the discovery of the key role of the enzyme lysyl oxidase (LOX) in hypoxia-induced cancer metastasis, postulated during her research stay in Stanford University in USA, in her seminal Nature paper 12 years ago, Erler et al Nature 2006. Next year, the entrepreneur Erler co-founded the company Arresto Biosciences, ready to market an LOX inhibitory antibody simtuzumab. A phase 1 clinical trial began, and in 2010 the business was sold to the pharma giant Gilead for $225mn. The clinical trial on 32 patients completed in 2012, unfortunately Dr Erler and her clinical collaborators were too busy to post any results or publish any papers about the outcomes. It was assumed however that LOX inhibition by simtuzumab “led to reduction in size of several solid tumors”. Even before that phase 1 trial completed, phase 2 on 250 patients with with metastatic pancreatic adenocarcinoma began, and ended in 2015. Yet for some reason, the LOX inhibitor suddenly proved no more effective than a placebo (Benson et al 2017), meaning it had no effect whatsoever. In November 2016, Gilead dropped the product completely. Not the first time when many millions get wasted in clinical research just because something was published in Nature. Never mind the burdens and false hopes given to patients.
In 2008, Erler was group leader at the ICR London (known for highly creative cancer research) and in 2012, she moved her lab to BRIC. In 2016, the European elite funding institution European Research Council (ERC) recognised the potential of Erler’s innovative approach to scientific discoveries and awarded her with €2mn Consolidator grant for 5 years. Without false modesty, Dr Erler is not just a very successful businesswoman and celebrated scientist, but she has also been very close to curing cancer. Until some sad envious bad-wishers found duplicated gel bands in her papers.
Luckily, neither BRIC nor ERC were bothered. When I received two dossiers with evidence of data manipulation, I tried to send them to ERC Standing Committee on Conflict of Interests, Scientific Misconduct and Ethical Issues, but I was made to understand that I am not welcome. Just like the ERC press office, the members of the committee refused to reply to my emails. Incidentally, the head of that Committee and ERC Vice-president is the Danish chemist Klaus Bock, senior executive with Danish beer maker Carlsberg and the Danish National Research Foundation. Which probably means that Denmark’s star scientist Janine Erler not only has friends in high places, but also free beer.
I previously reported about numerous cases of suspected (or even blatantly obvious) data manipulation at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel (here, here and here). Initially I wrongly assumed that the institute does not investigate misconduct evidence on principle. It turned out they do, but these investigations “are not public” as Michal Neeman, Vice President of the Weizmann Institute, told me in an email.
Below I present the documents from one such investigation from 2012, regarding two papers by the Weizmann cell biologist, apoptosis researcher and keen dancerAtan Gross. The original report was filed in July 2012 by a peer of Gross, David Vaux, deputy director of The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia. The Weizmann investigation ended just one month later with data manipulations confirmed, original raw data absent, but with the conclusion that it all was only an “unfortunate decision about presentation of the data” with “no evidence for falsification with an intent to deceive”. The case was closed with the request of two corrections, one to Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC), and another one to Cell, with the manipulated data replaced by newly generated Ersatz. While the former journal duly issued a correction, Cell‘s Editor-in-Chief and Cell Press CEO Emilie Marcus declared that she will do nothing at all. Continue reading “How Emilie Marcus and Cell covered up misconduct at Weizmann”→
The Portuguese cancer researcher Sonia Melo has now achieved the status of a zombie scientist. After an internal investigation which records are kept secret, she was cleared of all suspicions of scientific misconduct and re-installed as group leader at the Instituto de Investigação e Inovação em Saúde (I3S) in Porto (see my report here). This despite an impressive PubPeer record of data integrity concerns, and despite the fact that the European research society EMBO revoked Melo’s Installation Grant funding after having determined problems with her publications. EMBO nevertheless stick to their decision, but Melo’s Portuguese funders like Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (FCT) apparently see absolutely no need to reconsider their support, certainly not after the I3S whitewashing. Melo previously had to retract a paper (Melo et al, Nature Genetics, 2009) for data manipulations, her other works were however found not problematic by the I3S commission. In two papers in Cancer Cell (Melo et al 2010 and Melo et al 2014), the alleged duplications were apparently proven not to be duplications. As I learned, this was probably because while the top part of the gel images indeed did look suspiciously similar, the lower parts were clearly different. A possibility of digital image splicing was not considered, as it seems. In any case, even if the top bands are indeed the same, it doesn’t really matter. Cell editorial offices made on several occasions perfectly clear that data integrity is not one of their top concerns.
Did you ever wonder why certain zombie scientists were still in academic jobs? Despite having been caught on data manipulation or biomedical ethics breach?
It seems the answer is simpler than you thought. They are paying for their protection, by giving pizzo to their crooked research institutions, just as in some unoriginal mafia film. Well, actually YOU are paying their pizzo, through your taxes, which in turn are awarded to these zombie scientists as public research funding, from the national, international and European funding agencies. In fact, the most prestigious and self-important European funding agency ERC is completely unprepared or maybe just unwilling to respond to evidence of research misconduct by their elite grant recipients.
My understanding is provocative, and I may be utterly wrong. But absent of any reasonable alternative explanations, let us for a moment go with this one. I will provide you with examples where questionable European scientists surprisingly retained their European funding unquestioned (or even received fresh millions of Euros), and coincidently or not, many institutions did not at all mind to keep them in their jobs.Continue reading “Does ERC help cheaters pay protection money?”→
The science of the fallen star of regenerative medicine Paulo Macchiarini was simple: take a dead organ, strip it of its cells and seed the carcass with stem cells (usually the magic cells from bone marrow). After some days in a “bioreactor”, you take out a living trachea, esophagus, even heart, and implant it into a patient. Another human life saved, and not only media, even scientist colleagues fell for this outrageous quackery. As the result of this hubris, several patients died, others remained in permanent critical care. Macchiarini and his partners Philipp Jungebluth, Martin Birchall and others had to fake ethics approvals as well as to lie and cheat about medical records in their publications in The Lancet, all in order to present a miserably suffering recipient of a ”regenerated” trachea as fully recovered. Animal experiments were performed only after Macchiarini’s team operated their first human patient, as indirectly evidenced by Jungebluth’s own doctorate thesis at the Medical University Hannover (MHH) in Germany.
Sweden is a tolerant country, which is a very good thing. Unfortunately, sometimes this Swedish tolerance seems ill-advised. Dishonest scientists caught faking data are happily given another chance and fat funding, like the case of the diabetes researcher Pontus Boström shows.
This scientist was found to have fabricated data during his PhD studies with late Sven‐Olof Olofsson at the University of Gothenburg, and went afterwards to publish a seminal paper in Nature with the biggest godfather of the diabetes research field, Bruce Spiegelman. Also this high-impact study turned out to be irreproducible by other researchers and a likely artefact of erroneous antibody use. Yet due to his impressive publishing record and unwavering support of the mighty Spiegelman, Boström was invited to head a group leader position at several Swedish universities, while he settled on the best offer by the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology at the prestigious Karolinska Institutet (KI) in Stockholm, supported by the elite EU funder ERC. All despite his previous convictions of research misconduct in Gothenburg and ensuing retractions of two meeting abstracts, which were at all times perfectly known to all parties involved. Continue reading “Pontus Boström: cheater carousel in Sweden”→
A scientist finds serious measurement errors in three publications of his former collaborators. He alerts the journals and makes his concerns public, openly under his own name. The errors would make obsolete several key observations of an established German neurophysiology lab. Indeed, one journal retracts the criticised paper, another issues a correction describing the affected results as “not reliable”. The Editor-in-Chief of the third journal however accuses the whistle-blower of unspecified conflict of interests and retracts his already published letter to editor, in the process tainting his reputation with a public insinuation of research misconduct.