The western blot doctors of Silesia

The western blot doctors of Silesia

Protein expression analysis by western blots appears to be the weak spot of life science, because these blots are so often reported to be manipulated. However, this is only because anybody, even without any background in biology can spot re-used western blot bands, just using a good eye or some computer skills. Unlike with other analytical tools, like real-time PCR or microscopy imaging, you don’t need specialist knowledge or access to raw data to spot digital manipulations of western blots. One of the most famous western blot breeders is the Brazilian diabetes researcher Mario Saad (see whistleblower reports on my site here and here). Below is the case of his two colleagues from Poland.

Some time ago, I was contacted by a Polish scientist with a dossier of suspected western blot duplications in the publication of the pharmacologist Bożena Gabryel from the Department of Pharmacology at the Medical University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland. Gabryel specializes in oxidative stress research, four of her publications on this topic were accused to feature duplicated western blots, in different context. Sometimes suspicions were raised that selected individual bands in different western blots look too similar, which might suggest manipulative band duplications.

Soon after, another whistleblower independently contacted me with another dossier about yet another set of Gabryel’s papers, all featuring as lead or even corresponding author Krzysztof Łabuzek, who is an adjunct professor at this same Medical University  of Silesia with interest in immune system and who also has a clinical practice for internal medicine in a small town near Katowice. Labuzek’s papers seem to feature a whole gallery of re-used western blots, as the dossier suggests. Additionally, that second whistleblower expressed concerns about  western blot splicing and suspected band re-used in papers featuring the first author Joanna Ślusarczyk, PhD student in the lab of Agnieszka Basta-Kaim at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Krakow. Basta-Kaim is also co-author on one Gabryel paper now suspected of data manipulations.

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Two EMBO corrections for the martyred saint Maria Pia Cosma

Two EMBO corrections for the martyred saint Maria Pia Cosma

The cell biologist Maria Pia Cosma, top-funded and prize-winning professor in Barcelona, is either an indestructible zombie scientist or a martyred saint. Her name means in Italian Mary the Pious, so it is probably the latter. So the following post is written in the style of a canonical satire.

Holy Mary Pia was accused by evil tongues on PubPeer of research misconduct in several of her publications. Philistines pointed crooked fingers and cast stones at duplicated western blot bands in papers published by St. Maria Pia in exalted scriptures like Cell. The accusers, envious of such impact factors, wished those gospels of scientific truth crucified on the cross of retraction and demanded for Our Lady of Barcelona to be judged and investigated. Yet Lord took mercy upon the tortured saint and sent His angels to defend her.

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The martyr of research integrity, St. Maria Pia (right, standing) receives a sign for “Beatified”. Source: Cosma lab, under fair use

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Mass investigation of 9 senior scientists at Karolinska Institutet

Mass investigation of 9 senior scientists at Karolinska Institutet

The scandal-shaken Swedish Karolinska Institutet (KI) invited nine of their research group leaders and professors to explain themselves about data integrity concerns raised in regard to their publications. They have time until November 24th 2016 to address of the suspicions of image duplications which were posted on PubPeer by anonymous watchdogs and subsequently reported to Karolinska by a whistleblower. This was the email the 9 scientists received on November 10th from Lisen Samuelsson of KI’s legal department:

“Karolinska Institutet (KI) has been notified about inaccuracies in one or more scientific articles according to comments on the website PubPeer. You are named as the main author of the article (s) in question.

KI therefore requests that you provide a statement regarding whether the alleged inaccuracies are correct or not. If there are inaccuracies in the article (s), KI requests that you specify whether they have been corrected, or if they will be corrected, and if so, how. Please submit your statement to KI at registrator@ki.se regarding this matter by November 24, 2016”.

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The email was complemented by a list of these scientists’ respective PubPeer-flagged publications. Most of these 9 addressees are very senior KI researchers, like Ulla Stenius and Boris Zhivotovsky. Here is the list, with some background information:

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5 retractions and a sack for Pfizer lead cancer researcher Min-Jean Yin

Five months ago, I reported about data integrity concerns in 6 publications authored by Min-Jean Yin, who had been working at the pharma giant Pfizer in La Jolla, California, as Senior Principal Scientist since 2003. One paper, where she contributed as a collaborator (Lamoureux et al, European Urology, 2014), has been corrected already in March 2016. Five other cancer research papers, on the efficiency of Pfizer’s own pharmacological enzyme inhibitors, will now be retracted, after an investigation performed by Pfizer confirmed the suspicions of data manipulation, originally raised on PubPeer. These five papers stemmed directly from the Pfizer lab which Yin used to be in charge of. Used to be – because according to her recently updated LinkedIn profile, Yin doesn’t work there anymore. Since September 2016, she joined a rather unremarkable Californian biotech start-up Diagnologix LLC in San Diego, as “General Manager”. With such a career (and surely also salary) setback, it is safe to assume Yin did not leave Pfizer after 13 years of service entirely voluntarily. Continue reading “5 retractions and a sack for Pfizer lead cancer researcher Min-Jean Yin”

Helin Vakifahmetoglu and Nobel-prized autophagy research of Karolinska

The Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institutet (KI) in Sweden awarded this week the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2016 to the Japanese scientist Yoshinori Ohsumi “for his discoveries of mechanisms for autophagy”. Autophagy is a physiologically highly relevant intracellular process of protein and organelle recycling, when these are misfolded or damaged or when the cell lacks nutrients. Possibly, KI Nobel Assembly’s decision might have been inspired by the success of their own excellent young autophagy researcher: Helin Vakifahmetoglu-Norberg, see also this press release. The following is to raise concerns about hers and KI’s achievements in the Nobel-awarded research field of autophagy, which are somewhat marred by recurrent image duplications. The copious new evidence I was given by a certain sleuth team suggests a possibly bigger problem than KI previously decreed.

The young group leader started her career in the field of apoptosis (cell death) research and authored many publications in highly respectable journals, both as PhD student of Karolinska in the lab of cell biologist Boris Zhivotovsky, as well as postdoctoral scientist in Harvard, with another apoptosis specialist, Junying Yian.  Vakifahmetoglu-Norberg then returned to KI to start her own cell biology research group, not on apoptosis, but on autophagy. At her institutional website she lists research funding from top-sources like the Swedish Research Council (VR), the Ragnar Söderberg Foundation, the Swedish Society for Medical Research and several others.  “Highly enthusiastic and hardworking postdocs and undergraduate students” are invited to join the “protein degradation pathways“ lab, while also discretely asked to bring their own financial support. Funding money plays a big role at KI, as we all recently learned during the Paolo Macchiarini scandal.

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Can lawyers influence a misconduct investigation? Case of Tina Wenz

Can lawyers influence a misconduct investigation? Case of Tina Wenz

Tina Wenz is a German mitochondria biologist, who was now found guilty of research misconduct in her six publications, authored as postdoc and group leader. The investigation was performed by her former employer, the University of Cologne in Germany, the results were announced in a press release on September 29th 2016. She was instructed to retract all these 6 publications, her former postdoctoral advisor and corresponding author Carlos Moraes from the University of Miami already announced to ask the journals to retract his four common papers with Wenz. Two other papers came from Wenz’ own former lab in Cologne, within the CECAD ageing research centre. Previously, Wenz’ lawyers attempted to squash any kind of identifying reporting about their client; a source indicated that the Cologne investigation had a certain heavy legal edge to it. None of these legal efforts helped, it seems. The university chose to de-anonymise Wenz’ name as well as to release detailed descriptions of research misconduct, a rather singular event in the notoriously secretive German academic environment, where the outcomes of institutional misconduct investigations are reported in public only with all identifying information removed or in fact are sometimes not even known to have ever taken place. In fact, the same University of Cologne keeps rejecting my freedom of information requests about a different investigation they have performed. On June 20th 2016, my inquiry to the University of Cologne about the outcome of that and the Wenz investigation was rejected outright.

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Maria Fousteri, the ERC-funded western blot cheater

Maria Fousteri, the ERC-funded western blot cheater

Maria Fousteri is a highly successful Greek molecular cell biologist who studies the molecular mechanisms of DNA damage repair in human cells and their protective roles “against mental dysfunction or cancer”. Her works in the field of nucleotide exchange repair and epigenetic chromatin remodelling, done at the Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC) in the Netherlands in the department led by the LUMC professor Leon Mullenders, appeared in elite journals such as Molecular Cell.  These publications, described to me by a leading DNA repair researcher as “definitely major papers in the field” consequently helped Fousteri to an ERC starting grant of €1.5 Million for her research project “TransArrest” in 2012. Her young ERC-funded lab is located at the Biomedical Sciences Research Center “Alexander Fleming”in Greece, 20 km south of Athens.

The economic crisis-struck Greek science community should surely be rejoicing about such success of their returning top-scientist, with the most prestigious EU funding award from the ERC in tow. Instead, Fousteri’s colleagues at Alexander Fleming recently learned that a LUMC investigation found her guilty of data manipulations and research misconduct in 5 publications. Once again, it is about western blots. Images were re-used in unrelated context, lanes spliced and occasionally even bands duplicated inside a continuous gel image. The DNA nucleotide exchange repair specialist Fousteri seems to be just as professional in exchanging of western blot bands. These are the five papers, the first four (all in Molecular Cell) were recommended for retraction: Continue reading “Maria Fousteri, the ERC-funded western blot cheater”