A scientist was “dismissed” by the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, UK. All evidence points towards that it was the cell biologist Irina Stancheva who specialises on the epigenetics and regulatory methylation of DNA, and who departed from the university recently, after a forced leave. She also has an impressive record on PubPeer, where her publications where flagged for suspected data manipulations around 2 years ago. The suspicions were mostly of western blot band re-use and duplication. Around same time, an investigation started about these PubPeer issues, and by now Stancheva’s name does not feature of the Department’s list of academic staff. A archived version from December 2016 does feature Stancheva, but not that of August 2017. Her institutional website was deleted just hours after I sent my email inquiries to her former faculty colleagues. Continue reading “After misconduct investigation, Irina Stancheva left Edinburgh, in secret”
The European Commission now took 40 days to deny my second Freedom of Information (FOI) Inquiry about the TETRA phase 2 clinical trial with cadaveric trachea transplant they are currently financing with €7 Million. This is EU’s second attempt to become world-leading manufacturer of industrial trachea transplants, after the €5mn Biotrachea led by the scandal surgeon Paolo Macchiarini was terminated mid-term. No, not because EU had any concerns for the patients, quite the opposite: he was given a clean ethics vote to go ahead. Biotrachea was terminated by the EU because the plastic tracheas Macchiarini wanted to use lacked novelty, as the documents I obtained revealed.
The TETRA trial, led by Macchiarini’s past collaborator, the UCL laryngologist Martin Birchall, was already on the brink of being terminated in the wake of the Macchiarini scandal, as EU previously indicated to me. Now, exactly the opposite happens. The trial is being prepared at full speed despite the fact that its predecessor phase 1 trial INSPIRE was suspended (because of my reporting), never recruited any of its four patients and it most likely never will. That trial is also led by Birchall (details here), it is likely that its Innovate UK funding has ran out meanwhile. EU however seems to signal that they will go ahead with phase 2 trial even if phase 1 never happens. After all, there are those 10 patients who received a cadaveric trachea transplant (here and below) and were operated under hospital exemptions between 2008 and 2012 by Macchiarini and Birchall. At least half of these 10 are dead, the lucky survivors either had their graft removed or live with permanently installed stents to prevent their rotting airways from collapsing (INSPIRE’s and TETRA’s clinical promise is actually that the patients will never need a stent). But this disaster seems exactly the reason for EU to try it again, and on a much, much bigger scale. Probably because it will create employment.
The EU spokesperson ceased long ago answering my emails, after I declined to be instructed over the phone (strictly off-the-record) why EU’s approach to trachea transplanting is right; this is why I had to resort to FOI. The official time limit to answer my FOI inquiry from July 1st 2017 was 15 days, but the EU first pretended not to have received my postal address, then said they need more time, then said they need extra time to assemble the documents for me, and finally, the Director-General of the European Commission, Robert-Jan Smits, wrote to me on September 11th. He basically told me again to get lost and that he will never release any information (read here his past rejection of my FOI inquiry). His reasons, as before: the trachea transplant trial is a business enterprise and revealing any of its progress might endanger the financial interests of its stakeholders, and then there are privacy concerns. Exactly, Smits decided that the public must under no circumstances find out whom exactly the EU is giving this public’s money for research on humans. I am not making it up, read Smits’ letter yourself here. Continue reading “EU commemorates dead patients of Macchiarini & Birchall with a phase 2 trachea transplant trial TETRA”
The Swedish Karolinska Institutet (KI) is going through turbulent times. The Paolo Macchiarini scandal sensitised the European elite biomedical research centre and home of the Nobel Prize not just to patient abuse, but also to research misconduct and data manipulations, which its past professor Macchiarini was found guilty of. The misconduct and patient abuse investigations are ongoing. In parallel, several non-clinical KI professors were or still are under KI investigation, because of PubPeer evidence against their publications, as I reported before on my site. Two of them, as I wrote in a separate article, were the autophagy researcher Helin Vakifahmetoglu-Norberg and her former PhD supervisor, the apoptosis specialist Boris Zhivotovsky. Both are now finally and irrevocably acquitted by KI of all suspicions of data manipulations in their common publications. The case is closed, there will be no external investigation.
In a previous decision regarding 9 of her papers, KI performed an amazing show of contortionism to absolve Vakifahmetoglu-Norberg from all suspicions of data manipulation (see this report). In one case, manipulated data was declared as non-existent because the paper containing it (Shen et al, Oncogene 2008) was retracted, and hence non-existent itself. No papers from Vakifahmetoglu-Norberg’s postdoctoral period in the US in the lab of Junying Yuan in Harvard were scrutinised by KI, despite the fact that KI originally based their decision to recruit Vakifahmetoglu-Norberg as assistant professor in no small part on these very publications. For example, western blot images from Vakifahmetoglu-Norberg et al, Genes & Dev 2013 were apparently re-used in her new lab’s paper in KI, Xia et al JCB 2015, see this PubPeer evidence: Continue reading “Karolinska embarrasses itself to save two professors”
The EU €1-Billion-Flagship Human Brain Project (HBP) started in 2013 as an closed enterprise run by three men. The triumvirate is no more: the visionary founder Henry Markram sidelined into almost insignificance after a coup, his Lausanne colleague Richard Frackowiak almost retired, only the German Karlheinz Meier, physics professor at University of Heidelberg, still seems to hold quite a lot of sway. The control of HBP is now basically in German hands: the “independent” mediator of the anti-Markram coup and director of Forschungzentrum Jülich (FZJ), Wolfgang Marquardt, is key member of the all-decisive HBP Stakeholder Board representing Germany, his FZJ colleague Katrin Amunts is the new scientific director of HBP. The bombastic goal of HBP used to be simulating the human brain in a supercomputer, including various brain diseases and even consciousness (read here and here for HBP background). That Markram’s “brain child” was silently mothballed, the big plan is now only revealed to select insider audiences (who occasionally blab on Twitter). The once high and mighty Markram, whose not-so-groundbreaking Cell paper (Markram et al, 2015) was once touted as HBP’s mega-success, was apparently forced to publish his recent brain simulation research in his own publishing outlet Frontiers (Reimann et al 2017), where he proclaimed a discovery of nothing less but a “Multi-Dimensional Universe in Brain Networks”. Regardless of what Markram thinks he is doing or what fairy tales HBP graduate students are told: dissolving the monster HBP and redistributing its EU funding onto smaller projects was obviously not an opinion. The new purpose of HBP seems to be:
- distributing the EU Flagship money, in the way HBP see it best fit, thus
- sparing the EU Commission the tedious work of research grant reviewing and management
The German trachea transplanters Heike and Thorsten Walles treated the 3 patients with their pig-intestine-based tracheal transplants (one of them performed with Paolo Macchiarini). They are currently suing me in court for reporting about those, while their employer, the University of Würzburg, investigates these tracheal transplants together with the evidence for blatant data manipulations in several Walles publications on suspicion of misconduct. None of those 3 patients is alive today, yet Walles insist that neither of their transplant operations was in any way related to the patients deaths or that it might have reduced their quality of life. They keep declaring those operations as resounding successes, free from any evidence, though the last transplant was performed in 2009 and never again. A corresponding clinical trial, financed by the German Ministry of Education and Research with €1.5 Million between 2009 and 2015 (and briefly mentioned at the beginning of the PEI letter), did not achieve even a single milestone. Not even animal experiments were permitted by the responsible watchdog institution, the Paul Ehrlich Institute (PEI). For almost 7 months, PEI refused to answer my Freedom of Information inquiry. It seems however, my complaints to authorities and the Federal Ministry of Health, finally had an effect.
The court litigation of the German trachea transplanters Heike and Thorsten Walles against me and my reporting has moved into the appeal stage. The appeal hearing will be on July 3rd 2017 in the Bavarian Higher State Court (Oberlandesgericht) in Bamberg. At the same time, the Walles case turns into an institutional conspiracy farce straight of a bad spy novel, which seems to go up to the very top, including the German government.
The central German watchdog on regenerative medicine, the Paul Ehrlich Institute (PEI), keeps breaking German federal law on Freedom of Information (FOI, Informationsfreiheitsgesetz) by refusing to comment on the legality of the 3 tracheal transplants Walles performed (one of them with Paolo Macchiarini). The FOI oversight authority (Bundesbeauftragter für Informationsfreiheit) failed despite several attempts to get PEI to adhere to this federal law and gave up, after admitting to me to lack any means to enforce it. My repeated complaints to the German Federal Ministry of Health, under whose roof PEI operates, did not even achieve an acknowledgement of receipt.
Meanwhile, their current employer, the University of Würzburg, has widened its misconduct investigations against Walles, to collaborate with their past employer, the Hannover Medical School (MHH) and the hospital where two tracheal transplants were performed by Thorsten Walles, the Clinic Schillerhöhe in Stuttgart. It is another question how collaborative or in fact keen on investigating anything at all these two institutions will be. The Stuttgart hospital decided to transplant two patients in 2007 and 2009 with Walles-made pig-intestine-based tracheal grafts in absence of own internal ethics review board and without procuring an ethics vote from an appropriate external institution (instead, they approached an inappropriate one, were sent away, and published this refusal of ethics opinion as an ethics approval).
The medical university MHH on the other hand seems to have no clue what medical ethics are. Just recently, they declared the MD dissertation of Macchiarini’s student Philipp Jungebluth to be utterly unproblematic and refused to investigate it. In light of this and a previous incident (see below), it appears MHH sees foreign patients abroad to be equivalent to research animals.
Even more significant about the widening of the Würzburg investigation is namely who apparently decided not to participate in it.
Academic research is dependent on funding, and funding agencies, both public and charity ones, play a crucial gatekeeper function in deciding who will go on to continue researching or even working in science, and who will not. With great power comes great responsibility. Unfortunately, funders traditionally end up serving the interests of select elite scientists by confusing the needs of those with the greater good of science as such. Money is dumped on the biggest pile, either to established star researchers or to their privileged academic scions. In this zero-sum game of science funding, many early career researchers see their grant applications rejected and are forced out of academia. The logic seems to be that this research proletariat would have spent it on booze and candy anyway, while the high elite will be investing it wisely to produce great science. Or whatever the funders, advised by that very elite, perceive to be great science. The guest post below by Shravan Vasishth, professor for psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics at the University of Potsdam, Germany, tells of a peer reviewer experience of his when it hit against such attitude from the most prestigious EU research funder, the European Research Council (ERC).