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US postdoc fabricates DNA data

A former postdoc at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) falsified and fabricated DNA sequences and methylation status in unpublished data about a tumor suppressor gene, a UNMC investigation, in conjunction with the Office of Research Integrity (ORI), has found. From 2002-2005, Lois Bartsch worked in James Shull's laboratory at UNMC, researching the tumor suppressor gene, p16Cdkn2a, in rats. The investigation concluded that Bartsch altered the nucleotide sequence of the p16Cdkn2a pr

By | May 9, 2008

A former postdoc at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) falsified and fabricated DNA sequences and methylation status in unpublished data about a tumor suppressor gene, a UNMC investigation, in conjunction with the Office of Research Integrity (ORI), has found. From 2002-2005, Lois Bartsch worked in James Shull's laboratory at UNMC, researching the tumor suppressor gene, p16Cdkn2a, in rats. The investigation concluded that Bartsch altered the nucleotide sequence of the p16Cdkn2a promoter region in GenBank, in a National Cancer Institute grant application, and a poster presentation. The investigation also found that Bartsch's grant application contained falsified data on the methylation status of rat p16Cdkn2a, and a fabricated claim of a polymorphism in the human homologue. No data was ever published in any peer-reviewed journal. A two-year inquiry was initiated after Shull asked the university to investigate around 2005, David Crouse, UNMC's associate vice-chancellor for academic affairs, told The Scientist. Shull declined to comment in any detail, but said that his suspicions of fraud led him to ask a second person in his lab to repeat some of Bartsch's experiments, and her data could not be replicated. "These were pretty distinct findings that couldn't be rebutted," Crouse said. "The data simply had been altered." According to the ORI's report, Bartsch entered into a "Voluntary Exclusion Agreement" in which she neither admits nor denies the misconduct findings. Bartsch, now an assistant professor at Graceland University in Lamoni, Iowa, where she teaches but does not maintain an active laboratory, did not respond to requests for comment. Linda Buckles, a former PhD student with Shull who switched supervisors and continues to work as a postdoc in another UNMC lab, sequenced the p16Cdkn2a coding region in Shull's lab before Bartsch starting working on the promoter. "My data conflicted with her data," she said. Disagreements between Buckles, Shull, and Bartsch eventually forced Buckles to leave the lab non-voluntarily in February 2004, she said. "Dr. Shull and I will never be on speaking terms or have a good relationship," Buckles said. Karen Deffenbacher, a former postdoc who joined Shull's group in 2004 and now works in a different UNMC lab, said that problems in Shull's lab went beyond Bartsch's data. "There was a general problem of integrity of the work coming out of that lab," she said. "[Shull] didn't really audit any of the data. He just wanted answers that matched his hypothesis." In 2006, Deffenbacher said Shull asked her to be the principal investigator on a Department of Defense grant originally held by Bartsch. This funded her research for a year, after which she wrote a final summary report. This was no easy task, she said. "It was a mess," because a number of different people had all worked on the project. "It wasn't clear where all the data was." Both Buckles and Deffenbacher told The Scientist that they have draft manuscripts that Shull refuses to publish. Shull, however, said that both former lab members had their papers rejected from peer-reviewed journals, and that he is currently incorporating their results into other manuscripts, or re-analyzing portions of the data. Deffenbacher said that only one of her two manuscripts had been rejected though, and that Shull was sitting on both of them without her consultation. Other than Bartsch's misconduct, Crouse said he didn't know about any other problems in Shull's lab.
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Comments

Avatar of: Micki Kobylk

Micki Kobylk

Posts: 2

May 12, 2008

Congrats to the PI who had another in the lab\nattempt to replicate the data, however, the\ndeceitful researcher appears to not have been\nreprimanded, but in fact continues to corrupt\nthe mind of the students she is teaching. \nEssentially she is awarded for her actions by\nremaining in her current position. This individual\nneeds to be removed from academia at all levels\nand stripped of her degree. This should be illegal\nand a punishable crime. Minimum the organization \nwhere she is employed should terminate employment\nimmediately to eliminate an individual who has\nsuch poor judgment and lack of ethical constructs\nto ever be around developing, learning minds on a\npermanent basis.
Avatar of: John Crews

John Crews

Posts: 6

May 12, 2008

I would like to thank the Scientist for covering this topic and this story will become part of the ethics training for our laboratory staff. I believe it is important to understand issues of dishonesty and faltering integrity, including the outcomes, damage caused, and what happens to those involved. Such information could be used to demonstrate to up-and-coming scientists the costs of deceitfulness. \n\nHonesty and integrity are an integral part of the scientific process, and this process begins and ends with the laboratory?s director. The lack of supervision, poor follow-up and misplaced data are very disconcerting and provide a window into how this laboratory was managed. \n\nHowever, there are also the affects of extreme pressures placed on researches to ?publish or perish? as it were. These pressures can drive people to create serious miscalculations of integrity that can harm far more than just their careers. Perhaps not only the researcher who falsified the data is at fault, but the system as well. Do we always have to wait for true disaster to strike before we call for reform? This is not a justification for the actions of the researcher, but broadening of accountability.\n\nI am director of a forensic DNA laboratory. Our system of accreditation demands transparency and routine accounting of all data, personnel, training, ethics, quality control/assurance, and process review. Falsifying data, which as been known to happen in forensic labs, is difficult. When the system fails, it is the lab director who is held accountable. Perhaps a similar system of accreditation and accountability is needed in research laboratories as well, not just to guard against the rogue researcher, but to help provide stability and accountability for the entire process.\n

May 13, 2008

I am not surprised...a lot of academic types are real whack jobs...I once had a Professor who used notes that cracked with age...a lab director who has students who feel pressured to back up her research is not unknown...the best research comes out of non-academic labs...except for medical research...that is the Catch-22 of the whole biz...The academic world is so far out-of-touch with real time problems it makes one wonder how any research is completed...it's funny that the most famous research lab of the 20th Century was not even in a remote way connected to some school...that would of course be Xerox Parc in Cali...back in the day...the only current research labs in America that are even famous in a small way are of course John Hopkins, and MIT Media Labs...
Avatar of: Ruth Rosin

Ruth Rosin

Posts: 117

May 13, 2008

As long as there is no evidence of scientific misconduct in research that resulted in conferring on a person a degree,(a PhD., say) , I believe there is no process that makes it possible to strip that person of his degree; not even in cases where it can be shown that in interpreting his data, that person actually committed serious logical errors!
Avatar of: John Collier

John Collier

Posts: 5

May 13, 2008

We in South Africa have to deal with a highly politicized academic environment. This sometimes leads to bad work, either falsified, plagiarized or profoundly incompetent that support higher degrees. I think that such degrees should be revoked, if any of these problems come to light. Procedural justice might say that anyone awarded a degree should be able to keep it on procedural grounds alone. Science, however, and academics in general, requires the highest integrity of the result, and discovery of any academic dishonesty, intended or not, should lead to revocation of a degree. It is the only way to eliminate cheaters from the system and to maintain faith in the results. Principles of fairness are simply not relevant where there is suspect academic work. In science the work has to speak for itself, and any violation of academic standards makes this nigh on impossible. If the PhD was rewarded for quality work, there is no problem. It should not be revoked. But if it based on even shoddy research, not deliberately misleading, later discovery of problems with the work should allow its re-evaluation. This places truth ahead of procedure, and unfair though it might be, academics have already implicitly agreed to such a standard by becoming academics in the first place. Uncomfortable as it might be, we need to take every step to eliminate those who violate academic standards, even if they meet considerations of procedural fairness.
Avatar of: MORGAN GIDDINGS

MORGAN GIDDINGS

Posts: 11

May 13, 2008

This is an awful case, and the great deal of pressure on academic researchers often leads to these unfortunate situations. However, if people can't or won't be honest, they don't deserve to be doing research, no matter how great the pressure.\n\nBut for someone as clueless as Bruce Deadmonz to claim that nothing substantive is coming out of any academic research labs is insane.\n\nLet's see... off the top of my head, from academic research labs we have:\n- The best gene finders available\n- Significant understanding of how genomes evolve\n- Understanding of the role of proteins like P53 in cancer\n- Increasing understanding of DNA and histone methylation for epigenetic control\n- The best proteomic search software\n- the discovery of micro RNA and its importance in gene regulation\n- phenomena such as recoding and RNA editing\n- the structure and function of most proteins\n- how neurons work\n- the role of microbes and microbial communities in obesity\n- understanding of how CFTR gene mutations lead to cystic fibrosis\n\nOk, I could easily go on, but I'll not waste my time, because this guy is obviously a troll.\n\n\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

May 13, 2008

Someone who fabricates/alters data becomes \nan assistant professor ...\n\nmessage to students:\n\nCHEAT \n\nit matters for naught if you are caught!
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 19

May 13, 2008

I agree with John Crews' diplomatic comments: Shull and his lab appear to have serious problems other than the rogue researcher falsifying data - the open antagonism by Buckles and Deffenbacher points to that. I doubt UNMC will see fit to investigate the way Shull runs his lab and provide constructive criticism and guidance if it is needed, but I think it should.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 8

May 19, 2008

James D. Shull, PhD, Chair of Genetics, Cell Biology, and Anatomy, UNMC is most likely a politician, schmoozer, and careerist - not a scientist. Rarely are basic science dept. chairs scientists.\nInstead of embracing & celebrating the integrity of trainees such as Buckles' and Deffenbacher's, he retaliates against it and stifles it and marginalizes those who embody it.\nUnfortunately as well, not rarely does PI = "Pusillanimous Ingrate."\nFor the careerists, only the money counts. Publications are a means to the money. Trainees are for servicing the PI's misguided careerism. (E.g.g: The hypothesis has to be right because it is fundable and it was my idea. Why review data? Why keep it organized? Because I would have to modify my hypothesis & maybe lose funding!) These careerists know grant agencies & grant peer reviewers have no idea what's going on in labs and that they probably wouldn't care if they did know.\n\nDisclaimer: I have never been affiliated with UNMC or Shull. I accept the trainees' statements as truthful: I've encountered similar circumstances many times.
Avatar of: null null

null null

Posts: 5

August 18, 2008

I greatly appreciate this debate and the courage of individuals who chose to speak against a powerful and deceitful head of a department. At least they are still working and have some backing of other professors and university personnel. There are institutions (this happened to me) in Texas where complaining about being forced to fabricate data for a patent that was supposed to be filed thorough the University, with all evidence (including E-mails to this effect) and refusing to have my name included in a fabricated patent led to my dismissal from a relatively reputed medical institute on flimsy charges of working with radioactivity (S-35 methionine) in a non-designated area. These charges were also false and the radioactive gel was clearly planted by my supervisor. Complaints to this effect with the institute's integrity officer and others had no effect and I did not want to waste my limited monetary resources on fighting in court. I decided to quit science and to pursue another career. The professor in question is still working. He claims to be from Boston and had several times told me that 'everyone in Boston was doing it' (fabricating data) and that it was an accepted and common practice for getting NIH grants!
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 8

April 15, 2010

Dr. James Shull is now Chair of the Department of Oncology and Director of the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research at U Wisconsin - Madison.\n\nPerhaps this is not so bad, however. UW is famous for its fraud - as well as its discoveries. Remember Dr. Elizabeth Goodwin's recent grant fraud in Dept. of Genetics? How about Dr. Hector DeLuca's vitamin D synthesis patent scandal (way back: 1980s)? Or the fights over Dr. James Thomson's human embryonic stem cell patents?

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