Flawed cytometry of Rector Giorgio Zauli

Flawed cytometry of Rector Giorgio Zauli

Giorgio Zauli is Italian clinical haematologist and cancer researcher, who used to be director of Burlo Garofolo Pediatric Institute in Trieste, till in 2015 he was appointed Rector of the respected University of Ferrara. In this position he might soon be investigating his own papers, because given the massive evidence uncovered by the pseudonymous data integrity sleuth Clare Francis and others, Zauli seems to become a second Alfredo Fusco, and given his Rector status, probably just as unshakable. In Italy, science and politics are unhealthily interconnected, as demonstrated by the deadly scandal of Paolo Macchiarini in Florence. In any case, the list of gross irregularities in Zauli’s papers on PubPeer grows daily.

Zauli’s impressive publishing record consists of almost 200 first- and last-author papers in prestigious journals and his h-index bears the impressive size of 57. Some of this academic output, largely co-authored by his close associate and head of his department in Ferrara, Paola Secchiero (h-index 41), was achieved by their rather questionable attitude to data integrity. Of course we have the usual: western blots with duplicated gel lanes and bands re-appearing in several figures and papers, standing in for different experiments and even different patients. This article however will focus on Zauli’s flow cytometry studies, and how such data in his publications apparently got manipulated in a way which is supposed to provide deniability should the authors ever be caught.

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The Perennial Northern Blot of Lopez-Otin

The Perennial Northern Blot of Lopez-Otin

On the Iberian peninsula, there seems to be a tradition to give well-connected scientists suspected (or even convinced) of data fudging an award. In Spain, Carlos López-Otín, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Oviedo, was given a Mentoring Award from the elite journal Nature, on recommendation from Spanish academia and despite evidence of data irregularities in his papers. This prompted my readers, in particular the famous pseudonymous data integrity sleuth Clare Francis, to comment on on PubPeer and on my site (as “Zebedee”) with additional evidence, which made Lopez-Otin’s scientific credibility look progressively worse and worse, with each new post.

Eventually, an image of a Northern blot (showing expression of mRNAs which code for proteins) was found to appear recurrently across several papers from that Oviedo lab, where the authors pretended it was a newly produced analysis. In reality, it was a “library” loading control reused so the authors could re-run same RNA gel of human tissue lysates over the years and never check ever again what they have actually loaded on their gels. Eventually Lopez-Otin et al even stopped caring what order of samples that original loading control had.

Clare Francis was soon joined on his quest for the Perennial Northern Blot of Oviedo by Elisabeth Bik, famous microbiology blogger and image duplication detective, and my regular contributor (also pseudonymous) Smut Clyde, who now presents you the findings of no less than 23 appearances of that same northern blot in 23 publications from Lopez-Otin’s lab in the guest post below. It is just as convincing as if the Spanish actor Antonio Banderas appeared in 23 different films still dressed in same costume from his 1995 hit Desperado, carrying same guitar case. Incidentally, also Lopez-Otin’s Perennial Northern Blot made its first appearance at around that year.
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Salk Gandalf Tony Hunter gets AACR prize for magic western blots

Salk Gandalf Tony Hunter gets AACR prize for magic western blots

Gandalf the Wizard has been awarded €75k in cash and Pezcoller-AACR International Award for Extraordinary Achievement in Cancer Research, for his magical western blots, where gel bands multiply under his spell to summon a bigger impact factor. Well, maybe not that Gandalf, but the bearded gel wizard Tony Hunter, of prestigious Salk Institute for Biological Studies (where impure womenfolk is not welcome) in San Diego, California, USA. On April 15th, Hunter will be giving a lecture at the annual meeting  of American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) in Chicago, and then go to beautiful Trento in Italy to pick up his award. All because of those western blots of his, which repetitive enchanted beauty was spotted by the image integrity sleuth Clare Francis and then posted on PubPeer. It was in fact Clare Francis who wrote to me to accuse Tony Hunter of being Gandalf The Wizard.

A breathlessly sycophantic article in San Diego Union Tribune described Hunter as “superstar” of 50 years productivity, congratulated him on his new Nature paper and the cash prize, for which the Salk Gandalf can probably buy himself a new BMW broom stick to whiz about, to and fro. That sum of €75k is actually poppycock compared to the $ half a million Tony the Wizard got from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences as Sjöberg Prize for Cancer Research, but that is probably intended as lab investment into more of his magic western blots. Probably as compensation for 2012, when Thomson Reuters, (past keepers of the sacred Impact Factor) requested for Gandalf The Western Blot Wizard the Nobel Prize.

So now, let us see what dashing sorcery the King of Sweden and AACR thought was so astounding to give awards for.

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Michael Persinger’s crank magnetism

Michael Persinger’s crank magnetism

“What about you? Do you find it risible when I say the name…”

Michael Persinger?

Either you are laughing already, or you wonder what this is all about. Both audiences will sure be entertained by the following guest post of my regular contributor, Smut Clyde. For this is about Professor Michael Persinger, born 1945, psychologist and “natural philosopher” at Laurentian University in Canada, smart dresser and undervalued science fiction writer. Undervalued, because the scientific community seems to take his Kilgore-Trout-esque output at face value, his academic peers really seem to think that was Persinger publishes on neuroscience, cancer, particle physics and virtually any topic which springs to his mind, is actual research. Scientific journals like PLOS One publish his science fiction short stories as peer reviewed works of science, while the revered PNAS and possibly also the less revered Scientific Reports invite him as guest editor to host fan fiction of his admirers. When Professor Persinger does get in trouble, it is never for impersonating a scientist, but for things like using rude words in the classroom.

No spoilers now, just read Smut Clyde’s guest post.

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Fried Divine Comedy, featuring anti-cancer cockroach and phallic fungus

Fried Divine Comedy, featuring anti-cancer cockroach and phallic fungus

This is a follow-up to the previous article, about a misconduct investigation at the Cardiff University in UK into the published works of cancer researcher Wen Jiang, professor of Surgery and Tumour Biology, Fellow of Royal Society of Medicine and chair of Cardiff China Medical Research Collaborative. The following guest post by my regular contributor Smut Clyde now delves deep into the peculiar approach with which Professor Jiang intends to cure cancer: namely by peddling herbal (and not so herbal) medicinal powders, manufactured by a Chinese company Yiling Pharmaceuticals. Jiang sees there no conflict of interest, even in presenting the patented concoctions of Yiling as his own research in Cardiff. It is not exactly the case that Jiang was hiding his connections to Yiling, outside of his conflict of interest declarations, that is. His own Cardiff University initiated the collaboration with the Chinese company in 2013 and proudly announced the engagement to the British Parliament in 2014. In 2015, Yiling helped Jiang and Cardiff University to organise The China–United Kingdom International Cancer Conference, attended by the First Minister of Wales and the Vice-Chancellor of the Cardiff University.

Jiang’s cancer-fighting magic ingredients are ginseng and other herbs, plus a cockroach, a parasitic fungus and bits of chicken gizzard, all sold by Yiling. Sometimes it includes Divine Comedy (don’t ask). Yiling’s potion named “Yangzheng Xiaoji” was certified by Cardiff University in an Impact statement as a metastasis inhibitor, which “has been shown to be beneficial to patients with certain solid tumours when used alone…“. The sole basis for this bold claim from respected British university was a 2009 paper by Yiling in an obscure Chinese journal, which incidentally is edited and published by Yiling.

Update: scroll down for relevant Cardiff University press release.

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Cardiff investigates two cancer research professors for data manipulation

Cardiff investigates two cancer research professors for data manipulation

The Cardiff University in UK is now investigating two cancer researchers, both senior professors, for suspected scientific misconduct. The evidence was submitted by pseudonymous Clare Francis, I publish below the results of preliminary investigations. One of these two professors is Robert Nicholson, specialist in breast cancer, former director of Tenovus Centre for Cancer Research, now professor of Cardiff School of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences, celebrated on BBC in 2008 for discovering a therapy target for tamoxifen-resistant tumours. The other is Wen Jiang, professor of Surgery and Tumour Biology at Cardiff University School of Medicine specialising in metastatic solid tumours, Fellow of Royal Society of Medicine and chair of Cardiff China Medical Research Collaborative. Jiang also made it into BBC news in 2013, when he announced to have discovered a “formula”, “consisting of 14 herbs” from traditional Chinese medicine, to stop cancer metastasis.

The two great doctors Jiang and Nicholson made great promises to cancer patients. A preliminary investigation by Cardiff University now determined that those promises were based on duplicated images and cloned gel bands. Importantly, the committee also saw irregular splicing of gels as a problem, an issue many tend to dismiss. The traditional excuse goes that gel splicing was allegedly permitted until 2008 or so. In fact, irregular splicing of gels, where bits of different gels are assembled to look as it were one intact physical gel, was never permitted and always considered to be data manipulation. Especially where due to splicing the gel loading controls are proven not to match the analytic gels, the entire figure becomes meaningless. Or worse, it indicates research misconduct. Continue reading “Cardiff investigates two cancer research professors for data manipulation”

Collages by Paul Workman, from the Golden Age of Biological Imaging

Collages by Paul Workman, from the Golden Age of Biological Imaging

Before biology became digital, with its -omics and big data, there were mostly gels and microscopy images. The peak of image use in biomedical papers was reached at the turn of the century, those became the golden times of Photoshop-assisted data manipulation. Not many suspected that scientists would sit at their computers digitally cloning gel bands inside gel images, stitching seemingly continuous figure panels from various, often unrelated gels, erasing image background and fragments which might have spoiled the narrative, or reusing old published pictures as new results. Many of the authors of such manipulated papers are meanwhile professors and directors of institutes, some also act as academic editors of scholarly journals. Nothing can touch them now, all they have to do when fingers are pointed on internet,  is to sit it out until the evidence of misconduct turns into entertaining anecdotes of their wild youth.

These Millennial years, which became the Golden Age of Biological Imaging is why PubPeer is overflowing with evidence of grossly manipulated data from the period around late 1990ies till around 2010. It is not that scientists became more honest since, but they sure became more difficult to catch on data rigging. For one reason, gross image reuse or manipulation is rare these days, after the warning stories of research misconduct became widely known. Scientists probably returned to manipulating data the old way, by tweaking the experimental conditions or rigging samples in the lab.  You can’t get caught on that until a colleague blows a whistle, and Academia has its long-honed ways of swiftly dealing with such despicable rat-finks. The other reason why evidence of data manipulation will soon become rare, is digitalisation of biological analytic technologies. As long as noone can force you to release your original gene expression analyses, microscopy files, code or spreadsheet quantifications, it is all up to your ingenuity. After all, your data is just a row of numbers, no IT or Photoshop skills needed there.

To celebrate the past Golden Age of Biological Imaging, I selected an example of the British cancer researcher Paul Workman, President and CEO of the huge Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) in Sutton, which is in greater London and part of the University of London. Workman, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, received many awards and much funding thanks to his work on the heatshock protein 90 (HSP90), which his papers reliably validated as a druggable cancer target. Prof Workman is about to cure cancer, and indeed, his preclinical research on HSP90 has moved into clinical trials. Continue reading “Collages by Paul Workman, from the Golden Age of Biological Imaging”