Roland Lill is the quiet star of German molecular biology. The 63-year old professor works at the University of Marburg, on mitochondria, using yeast as a model organism. Lill is also since 2014 member of the Senate at the German Research Foundation (DFG), re-elected just recently, where he represents the interests of German molecular biologists and decides on federal funding distribution and research policies. Since 2016, the Marburg professor is also Senator for Biochemistry and Biophysics at the Leopoldina, which is the German Academy of Sciences. Furthermore, Lill is EMBO member since 2013 and he also used to be Fellow of the Max Planck Society.
Lill’s research focus is on iron-sulfur biogenesis, and his achievements for German science are indeed strong as iron, as evident by his awards and medals (including the Leibniz Prize of €1.55 Mn in 2003), his impressive funding acquisition success and publication record. Recently however, a sulfuric smell of rotten eggs emitted from the whistleblowing platform PubPeer, tainting his legacy. Currently 9 Lill papers are affected, the evidence looks worrisome, and might indicate possible data manipulations. Mostly it is about apparently duplicated gel bands. Luckily however, most papers are 13 and more years old, nobody would expect Professor Lill to have stored the original data for so long, even if it was ever available. The despicable attack on Professor’s Lill research record will be surely thwarted by the journals’ reluctance of dealing with problems in old papers, and of course by the tremendous respect and influence this Senator enjoys in German academia. In fact, both DFG and the two research integrity Ombudspersons of the University of Marburg refused to comment on the PubPeer evidence. Leopoldina announced to me to have the “accusations” addressed by their Ombudsman; DFG mentioned to have had the PubPeer information “forwarded inside the house”.
The Swedish Karolinska Institutet (KI) has investigated its own cell biologist and well-funded autophagy researcher Helin Vakifahmetoglu-Norberg, following my publishing of a dossier with evidence for data manipulations in her papers. Also PubPeer evidence was considered. This was a second investigation of Vakifahmetoglu-Norberg, who was fully acquitted by KI already in 2016. While the new KI investigation progressed, one of Vakifahmetoglu-Norberg’s publications was retracted (Shen et al, Oncogene 2008), due to image duplications and unavailability of original data. With their second decision, KI again exonerated Vakifahmetoglu-Norberg from all suspicions. One of the reasons was: since the Shen et al 2008 is retracted, it ceases to exist. Hence, all image duplications it shares with other Vakifahmetoglu-Norberg papers cease existing also. Other arguments were the author’s assertions to have reproduced more than 10 year old results faithfully (since the original data was unavailable), or her presenting evidence that similar looking images were in fact dissimilar. Unfortunately, where such original data could be recovered, it was shown only to internal investigators at KI, noone else. The case is closed, no appeal is possible. There will be no corrections even, unless journals do the unlikely thing and decide not to accept the KI decision.
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 Gabryelfrom 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 authorJoanna 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.
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.
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 email@example.com regarding this matter by November 24, 2016”.
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:
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”→
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.