Claudia’s trachea

Claudia’s trachea
This is the English original of my story for Hipertextual, first published in Spanish on 27.10.2016.

What did we learn from the trachea transplant scandal around the miracle surgeon and stem cell pioneer Paolo Macchiarini, who used to conduct his human experiments in Germany, Spain, Italy, Sweden and Russia? That despite the stem cell fairy magic, all his plastic trachea transplants proved deadly for his patients, except of one or two cases where the transplant was removed early enough. These patients were not saved by Macchiarini though: he quickly lost interest in his human Guinea pigs, especially when his miracle cures started to fail. One such patient, a young woman from Turkey, lost several organs in the process, and was only saved so far due to excellent medical care and organ transplants. Macchiarini meanwhile was busy experimenting on humans in Russia, the saddest case was that of another young woman who was tricked into agreeing to an allegedly life-improving plastic trachea, which caused her death soon after.

But it was not only about the lethal plastic, and there were more young women (and some men) who were killed or mutilated by Macchiarini’s trachea transplants, while other options were available to save their lives and health. What often remains unspoken: the technology which Macchiarini used before, that of a dead donor trachea stripped of cells and allegedly reconstituted with stem cells, failed as well. Without exception, but for some reason the method is still being presented as ground-breaking success and in fact there are currently clinical trials happening in UK and soon in the whole EU. These are led by none other than by Macchiarini’s formerly closest ally, the British surgeon Martin Birchall. What the two of them did to their very first patient whom they operated in 2008 at the Hospital Clinic Barcelona, is nothing less but a bankruptcy of basic medical ethics which almost costed that young woman her life. Other Spanish doctors have been rescuing her life ever since, while Macchiarini and Birchall were busy making their fame and careers by parading this utterly failed transplant of a rotting trachea as an epic success story.

The untold story of Claudia Castillo and her trachea transplant features these key points:

  • Patient was neglected by Macchiarini and his Barcelona colleagues prior and after the transplant operation, while her condition deteriorated
  • Standard therapies were not considered or rejected in favour of a totally untested, scientifically unfounded and unrealistic method
  • “Informed constent” of the patient was obtained through deliberate misinformation
  • The transplant was prepared in a British veterinary lab using animal products, in total disregard for elementary safety measures in human medicine. The responsible British authorities were misinformed, the incident soon covered up and all research documentation vanished.

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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”

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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Beall-listed Frontiers empire strikes back

Beall-listed Frontiers empire strikes back

The Swiss publishing business Frontiers was placed by the US librarian Jeffrey Beall on his well-known and hotly disputed list as “potential, possible or probable predatory publisher”. Frontiers however was not prepared to take this lying down. The publisher’s Executive Editor Frederick Fenter first tried it nicely. Shortly before Christmas 2015, he flew to visit Beall at his University of Colorado in Denver, with the senior manager Mirjam Curno in tow. Curno is incidentally also board member and trustee of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). Afterwards, Fenter stopped being nice. In August 2016, he bombarded around ten senior officials at the University Colorado in Denver with letters and a dossier (see below) demanding that they make sure Frontiers is removed from their employee’s private list.

Thing is: University of Colorado has nothing to do with the so-called Beall’s List. The list is part of the librarians private blog on WordPress (same platform I use). In fact, this is the disclaimer which Beall placed on his site clear for all to see:

“These views represent the personal opinions of the author (Jeffrey Beall)  and may not reflect the position of the University of Colorado Denver or the University of Colorado System”.

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Macchiarini and the bonfire of greed

Macchiarini and the bonfire of greed

The aftermath of the Paolo Macchiarini scandal: many dead or mutilated trachea transplant patients, many stellar academic careers destroyed or damaged beyond repair, the reputation of the once world leading Karolinska Institutet (KI) in shatters and even the Nobel Prize itself is dented. The latter is because several members of the 50-head strong committee of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine were forced to resign:

  • Urban Lendahl, KI professor of genetics, quit his postas Nobel Committee Secretary General already in February, due to his involvement into Macchiarini recruitment. Lendahl also used to be Macchiarini’s superior, as director of three research centres in stem cell research and regenerative medicine: DBRMStratRegen and WIRM(the Wallenberg Institute for Regenerative Medicine).
  • Hans-Gustaf Ljunggren, former KI Dean of Research resigned from this post and Nobel Committee in February 2016. Ljunggren decreedin August 2015 together with the then-Rector Anders Hamsten that Macchiarini did not commit any misconduct, and trashed the results of the Bengt Gerdin investigation.
  • Katarina Le Blanc, immunology professor and Macchiarini co-author, who is apparently herself under investigation on suspicion of misconduct and data manipulation.
  • Anders Hamsten and Harriet Wallberg-Henriksson were asked to resign by the new Secretary of the Nobel Assembly, Thomas Perlmann, after the KI report was published. Both ex-Rectors played a crucial role in the Macchiarini recruitment and the cover-up of his patient abuse and misconduct.

Two more members of the Committee were possibly asked to step down, but this information is not confirmed. Bo Risberg, emeritus professor of surgery at the University of Gothenburg and longstanding Macchiarini critic (see his earlier guest post for my website), proposed “a moratorium for two years to the Nobel prize” and for the award money to be donated to Macchiarini’s victims and their families.

The corrupt Ethics Council of KI was dissolved by the new Rector Karin Dahlman-Wright, other heads rolled as well. Two investigations, one by KI and one by Karolinska University Hospital revealed a culture of cover-up and disregard for basic research integrity and medical ethics. Meanwhile, the entire KI University Board was dismissed by a governmental decision.

What drove so many scientists and doctors to support Macchiarini and his outrageous visions? It seems, the driving force was, just as elsewhere in science, greed. Greed for research funding and the fame and power it brings. And Macchiarini attracted many millions of Kronen, Euros, Dollars and even Roubels, and he kept promising even more. It seems the lust for money and fame made everyone at Karolinska switch off their brains. As the result, innocent people have died.

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The infectious self-plagiarism of radiologist Hedvig Hricak

The infectious self-plagiarism of radiologist Hedvig Hricak

In medicine, academic performance is evaluated quantitatively, by the sheer number of papers. Promotions are granted according to the publication output, often counted in hundreds. Doctors love to throw around sentences like “I have more than 300 papers”, or 400, or 500, which is meant to put their clinician colleagues in their place. Such high-throughput publishing culture heavily relies first of all on the system of “honorary” authorships, i.e. those utterly unrelated to the actual research become co-authors solely by the virtue of their higher hierarchy status or their being friends or even family. Other questionable tactics are salami-publishing (where even a tiniest dataset or analysis is stretched and re-used again and again for several consecutive publications) and good old self-plagiarism, or text re-use. To avoid being busted for double-publishing, clever doctors combine both methods to achieve some variation between their overlapping publications. At the end of the day, where others would publish only one measly paper, these tricksters get two, three and much more. Guess whose publication list will look more impressive, and who will climb the academic career ladder then. Another danger of self-plagiarism: it can lead to “proper” plagiarism and poor quality research. When untreated in one scientist, it also becomes contagious. Continue reading “The infectious self-plagiarism of radiologist Hedvig Hricak”

Pontus Boström: cheater carousel in Sweden

Pontus Boström: cheater carousel in Sweden

Sweden is a tolerant country, which is a very good thing. Unfortunately, sometimes this Swedish tolerance seems ill-advised. Dishonest scientists caught faking data are happily given another chance and fat funding, like the case of the diabetes researcher Pontus Boström shows.

This scientist was found to have fabricated data during his PhD studies with late Sven‐Olof Olofsson at the University of Gothenburg, and went afterwards to publish a seminal paper in Nature with the biggest godfather of the diabetes research field, Bruce Spiegelman. Also this high-impact study turned out to be irreproducible by other researchers and a likely artefact of erroneous antibody use. Yet due to his impressive publishing record and unwavering support of the mighty Spiegelman, Boström was invited to head a group leader position at several Swedish universities, while he settled on the best offer by the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology at the prestigious Karolinska Institutet (KI) in Stockholm, supported by the elite EU funder ERC.  All despite his previous convictions of research misconduct in Gothenburg and ensuing retractions of two meeting abstracts, which were at all times perfectly known to all parties involved. Continue reading “Pontus Boström: cheater carousel in Sweden”