The MD Anderson Cancer Center, part of the University of Texas and located in Houston, is a giant hub of huge cancer research money, even for US standards. They also do a lot of science there, which only purpose seems to be publishing in big journals in order to generate even more money. If there is any genuine interest to help cancer patients with actual research: this stands in a stark contrast with MD Anderson’s evident attitude to research reproducibility and data integrity. A number of their star researchers who published in most respectable journals papers, had their data flagged on the whistleblowing platform PubPeer as highly problematic. Yet MD Anderson apparently cannot care less. Their star cancer researcher and businessman Raghu Kalluri was never investigated for many problems in his publications, either in those with or those without his misconduct-tainted Portuguese co-author and ex-MD Anderson employee Sonia Melo. When nobody ever investigates your research practices (e.g., because your research institution is blinded by the investor money you brought in), you will per definition never be found guilty of any misconduct. This is probably exactly why the elite journal Nature recently accepted a new paper from the Kalluri lab (Kamerkar et al 2017), on the same topic of exosomes as cancer biomarkers as his irreproducible earlier masterpiece with Melo (Melo et al, Nature 2015). The new Nature paper even again features the same disgraced co-author, who lost a Nature Genetics paper (Melo et al, 2009) and her EMBO Young Investigator funding due to data manipulation.
Sonia Melo, the Portuguese cheater scientist and her former US-boss Raghu Kalluri issued some days ago a biorxive preprint, which sole purpose is to defend their discredited Nature paper from 2015. There, they originally claimed to have found a unique biomarker for early pancreatic cancer, a much hailed promise to save lives of many cancer patients. However, soon it was found out that the results were not reproducible, the Nature paper Melo et al, 2015 contained evidence of data manipulation (just like other Melo publications with Kalluri and her PhD boss Manel Esteller). The antibody, on which the central evidence for the allegedly unique pancreatic cancer biomarker glypican 1 (GPC1) was based, proved to be delivering staining artefacts; the vendor Thermo Scientific soon discontinued it. Even Kalluri seemingly distanced himself from his results.
Now in their new preprint, Melo and Kalluri claimed to have perfectly reproduced their original 2015 GPC1 results with a new antibody, which however proved to be likely exactly the same as the old one, but sold by a different vendor. As soon as this became known, the authors issued a new preprint version just two days later, featuring yet another entirely new GPC1 antibody, with an utterly new set of results to complement the 6 day older ones. However, also these results are most likely useless. The authors namely freely admit in their preprint method description to have intentionally manipulated their flow cytometry (FACS) data to obtain a positive signal specifically where needed. It seems that one full professor and three research group leaders have absolutely no understanding about data integrity in flow cytometry (or maybe even in research in general). Obviously, they simply adjust the FACS settings for each sample in an analytic row any way it pleases them until they see a result they like. As they don’t even hide it, they seem to think this is the proper way to do science. Continue reading “Melo and Kalluri defend discredited Nature paper with preprint, where they admit data “adjustments””→
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.
Sonia Melo, Portuguese cancer researcher and recipient of the prestigious EMBO Installation Grant, now has her publications investigated by EMBO for suspected image manipulations. Her current and former research institutions are apparently actively avoiding any attempts to scrutinise her papers, some due to very heavy financial conflicts of interest. Yet my information suggests that Melo’s former PhD advisor and co-author, Manel Esteller, is being presently investigated by his research centre in Barcelona.
Melo already had to retract a first-author publication from her PhD period with Esteller from the journal Nature Genetics. The retraction notice admits image duplications:
“We have recently become aware of the presence of duplicated images in the Figures 3 and 4 and Supplementary Figures 5 and 6 in our publication Nat. Genet. 41, 365–370, 2009, that were assembled according to the specified author contributions. We therefore retract the publication for the sake of the high standards we expect for research and scientific journals. All the authors have signed this statement”.