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Immunologists prepare for fraud fallout

Scientists and journals say fired MIT researcher's misconduct raises concerns about multiple papers

By | November 3, 2005

Immunologists are gearing up for a lengthy clean-up of research literature after the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge fired an immunologist for allegedly fabricating data—an incident they say may raise questions about all of his publications. Still, researchers who commented this week on the incident said that, for now, it doesn't seem to have affected their own findings.

On Oct. 27, MIT announced it had fired Luk van Parijs, an associate professor in biology, after he admitted fabricating data in a paper and several manuscripts and grant applications. Colleagues said van Parijs, who co-authored more than 30 published papers on immunology and RNA interference, was an emerging heavyweight.

Learning of alleged misconduct "in somebody with such a broad number of scientific contributions … is really scary," Isabel Merida of the National Biotechnology Center in Madrid, whose publications cited some of the findings under investigation, told The Scientist. "It represents a terrible loss of time and money trying to reproduce experiments which are not true."

And although van Parijs admitted faking data in only one paper, the investigation casts a shadow on all of them, scientists noted. "I think people will now take all his work with a grain of salt," said Michael K. Racke, a professor of Neurology and the Center for Immunology at the University of Texas-Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

MIT officials haven't announced which paper is supposedly tainted. But in the inquiry's wake, California Institute of Technology officials said they have launched their own probe into the two papers van Parijs co-wrote for the journal Immunity in 1999, when he was a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech.

Officials with Cell Press, publisher of Immunity, told The Scientist they're also investigating, noting the journal has published seven papers under his name. They declined to say whether they're eyeing all seven or a subset of them.

Parijs, whom MIT promoted last year, was a "rising star" in the field—as his increasingly influential publications suggested, Racke told The Scientist. These included a string of papers since 2002 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Nature Genetics, and Nature Immunology. The publishers of those journals told The Scientist through spokespeople that they're taking no action in the van Parijs case, but will act if the investigating institutions contact them with information that suggests they should.

Much of van Parijs's key research examined molecules regulating the survival or death of immune cells known as T lymphocytes. When the balance among these chemicals goes awry, T lymphocytes that cause autoimmune disorders can proliferate.

Van Parijs didn't answer Emails from The Scientist requesting comment. MIT officials said in a statement that the alleged misconduct didn't involve his colleagues.

"It would be very important, if not imperative, that all of his publications are re-evaluated and that it becomes clear which ones are without doubt, and which ones should be retracted," Jon D. Laman, a professor in the Department of Immunology at University Medical Center Rotterdam, The Netherlands, said in an Email to The Scientist.

Racke said this analysis might require scouring obscure journals to see who has -- or hasn't -- been able to replicate the findings. "Everybody reads the 'big splash' papers," but follow-ups often appear in lesser journals, Racke noted.

Early assessments by other researchers who have cited van Parijs suggest the impact might be minimal. Merida said in an Email that when she cited one of the 1999 Immunity papers now under investigation by Caltech, it was in connection with basic observations that she believes other authors have confirmed.

After citing a noted 1997 Journal of Experimental Medicine paper by van Parijs, Racke said he successfully replicated experiments in it, though he interpreted the results differently. "His data, at least in that paper, seems to be still holding up," Racke said.

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