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Certain Data in Stem Cell Paper Were Falsified

I have posted on this subject on March 23, 2007. For some background, please see:

Photoshop Manipulation of Scientific Illustrations
Stem Cells at BigU, the Continuing Saga

Statement from the University of Minnesota

University Misconduct Panel Concludes That Certain Data in Stem Cell Paper Were Falsified

University of Minnesota Vice President for Research Tim Mulcahy has accepted the conclusions of an academic misconduct committee impaneled by the University which found that certain data published in the journal Blood in 2001 in connection with federally sponsored stem cell research at the University were falsified. The University has asked the journal to retract the article. Vice President Mulcahy also accepted the findings of discrepancies, but not falsification, in certain data published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

Two current or former University employees were the subject of a complaint. Dr. Catherine Verfaillie was previously a full-time tenured faculty member at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Verfaillie is currently the Director of the Stem Cell Institute at the Catholic University in Leuven, Belgium, and retains a 10 percent faculty appointment at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Morayma Reyes was a University of Minnesota student in the combined M.D./Ph.D. program who worked in Dr. Verfaillie’s laboratory. Dr. Reyes is currently an Assistant Professor of Pathology at the University of Washington. None of the co-authors of the papers or other laboratory personnel were subjects of any complaints or findings.

The complaint was investigated by an investigation committee, chaired by Dr. David Bernlohr, Professor of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biophysics at the University of Minnesota, and included Dr. Karen Reue, Professor of Human Genetics at the David Geffen School of Medicine – UCLA, and Dr. William Smith, Professor of Biological Chemistry at the University of Michigan. The panel was charged with investigating complaints against the respondents pursuant to federal regulation 42 C.F.R. § 93.310 and the University’s Academic Misconduct Policy after an earlier inquiry conducted by Senior Administrator Charles Muscoplat concluded that there had been sufficient questions raised about the research to warrant a full investigation.

The investigation panel submitted its final report to the Senior Administrator on September 5, 2008. The panel concluded that parts of four figures in the Blood paper were falsified. Allegations against Dr. Verfaillie were unsubstantiated. The findings with respect to Dr. Reyes are private student data and cannot be released under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act and the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

The Senior Administrator accepted the panel’s report on September 12, 2008, and forwarded it to the Vice President for Research, Tim Mulcahy, who is the senior University official responsible for oversight of academic misconduct proceedings. Vice President Mulcahy reviewed the report, accepted the panel’s conclusions and issued the University’s final decision on September 24, 2008. On September 25, 2008, Vice President Mulcahy transmitted the investigation panel’s report and other required materials to the federal Office for Research Integrity for its review and action as required under federal rules governing research supported by the Public Health Service (PHS).

In four of seven figures in the Blood paper, the panel concluded that aspects of the figures were altered in such a way that the manipulation misrepresented experimental data and sufficiently altered the original research record to constitute falsification under federal regulations and University policy. Manipulations identified by the panel included: elimination of bands on blots, altered orientation of bands, introduction of lanes not included in the original figure, and covering objects or image density in certain lanes.

In one case all exposures of the source data for the published image were missing. While the panel could not conclude misconduct in this case, it concluded that the figure should be withdrawn as it cannot be substantiated by the existing experimental record. The panel found no academic misconduct in the remaining two figures in the Blood paper.

The panel also considered three duplications of Fluorescent Activated Cells Sorting (FACS) data and incorrect labeling included in the article published in Blood, as well as two duplications of FACS data and incorrect labeling in a 2002 article published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation (JCI). These latter discrepancies were self-reported to the University and JCI by Dr. Verfaillie prior to the initiation of the University’s investigation. In all cases, the panel concluded that no academic misconduct was associated with these FACS discrepancies. With respect to the FACS discrepancies in the Blood paper, the panel noted poor scientific method and inadequate training and oversight for this research. The panel made frequent reference to insufficient oversight throughout the report.

Based on the panel’s findings, the University has requested that the article entitled “Purification and Ex Vivo Expansion of Postnatal Human Marrow and Mesodermal Progenitor Cells? published in the November 2001 edition of Blood be retracted. Similarly, the University has notified the editorial office of the Journal of Clinical Investigation of the panel’s findings in relation to the FACS discrepancies identified in the article entitled “Origin of Endothelial Progenitors in Human Post-Natal Bone Marrow? published in 2002. As the panel did not find evidence of academic misconduct related to these figures, the University has not requested that the JCI paper be retracted.

The investigation panel also considered six discrepancies in two figures (Figures 6 and 10) included in an international patent application filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in August 2000 and again in a corresponding national stage filing dated August 2002. While concluding that the figures were seriously flawed and not accurate data, there was insufficient evidence to conclude that misconduct occurred in connection with the patent applications. Nevertheless, the panel recommended that the University notify the company holding the patent interests of these findings and cooperate with the company in making any appropriate disclosures to the USPTO.

The published version of Dr. Reyes’ thesis contained all seven western blot discrepancies and three sets of FACS duplications included in the Blood paper. The University’s Student Conduct Code prohibits scholastic dishonesty and falsification in academic work. Student disciplinary proceedings are private, and information about student discipline can be released only in accordance with the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act and FERPA

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