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Renal researchers faked data

Two researchers conducting animal studies on immunosuppression lied about experimental methodologies and falsified data in 16 papers and several grants produced over the past 8 years, according to the Office of Research Integrity (ORI). Image: Rainer Zenz via Wikimedia The scientists, Judith Thomas and Juan Contreras, formerly at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), falsely reported that they performed double kidney removals on several rhesus macaques in experiments designed to test

By | July 13, 2009

Two researchers conducting animal studies on immunosuppression lied about experimental methodologies and falsified data in 16 papers and several grants produced over the past 8 years, according to the Office of Research Integrity (ORI).

Image: Rainer Zenz
via Wikimedia
The scientists, Judith Thomas and Juan Contreras, formerly at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), falsely reported that they performed double kidney removals on several rhesus macaques in experiments designed to test the effectiveness of two immune suppressing drugs -- Immunotoxin FN18-CRM9 and 15-deoxyspergualin (15-DSG) -- in preventing rejection of a single transplanted kidney. The experimental protocol was to remove one intrinsic kidney, replacing it with a transplant and starting the monkeys on immunosuppresants, and then remove the other intrinsic kidney a month later, according to Richard Marchase, UAB's vice president of research. "What occurred in a good number of these animals was that [Contreras and Thomas] never performed the second surgery," Marchase told __The Scientist__. In a statement emailed to __The Scientist__ Marchase called the misconduct "a very serious offense." Thomas's and Contreras's research was funded with more than $23 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health. UAB officials learned that Contreras and Thomas had left one native kidney intact in at least 32 animals -- which allowed those animals to live and inflated the apparent effectiveness of the drugs -- on January 27, 2006, when Thomas reported that she found an experimental monkey with one of its native kidneys intact and blamed Contreras for the mistake. Marchase said that Thomas initially alleged that Contreras, a surgeon and Thomas's former postdoc, perpetrated the misconduct on his own without her knowledge, but the UAB investigation eventually showed that Thomas was in on the deception as well. "The lack of second nephrectomies could have been discovered years earlier from examination of animal care records and from questions and concerns raised by various UAB staff," wrote Peter Abbrecht from ORI in a statement emailed to __The Scientist__, "but the principal investigator [Thomas] did not undertake any such actions, and appeared to exert very little control over the integrity of the study." Thomas accepted responsibility for the misconduct, but both she and Contreras denied intentionally committing fraud, according to the ORI linkurl:report.;http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2009/E9-15910.htm The ORI investigation found that the misconduct -- which specifically consisted of "falsifications in publishing of research results in journals and grant applications" -- spanned more than 8 years, from a fraudulent 1998 publication by Contreras and Thomas in __Transplantation__ to a falsified paper that was published by Thomas in a December 2005 issue of the __Journal of Immunology__. The ORI also determined that Thomas first presented falsified data to the NIH in a 1999 R01 grant progress report. In total Thomas and/or Contreras fudged data in 16 publications and several NIH grant applications. Fourteen of the publications have been retracted and two are in the process of being retracted, according to UAB. "The extent of misconduct with the widespread dispersion of falsified results had the effect of increasing the credibility of the respondents and thereby increasing the acceptance of the falsified results by other researchers in the field," wrote Abbrecht in the ORI statement. "Such acceptance could lead to wasted research effort by other researchers and possibly placing patients at harm if they were enrolled in clinical trials designed on the basis of the falsified results." Thomas, who was also formerly on the board of directors at the NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, resigned her full professorship on January 10, 2008, after she learned of UAB's findings. At the time of her resignation she maintained a lab with 6-10 grad students, technicians and postdocs, according to Marchase. Thomas agreed to a "Voluntary Exclusion Agreement," under which she will not be able to receive any funding from the US government or to serve in any advisory capacity to the US Public Health Service (PHS) for ten years. A call placed to a number listed under Judith Thomas in Birmingham was not answered, and UAB officials declined to provide Thomas's contact information. Contreras resigned his UAB assistant professorship last week, on July 6, and also entered a voluntary agreement with the ORI in which he will be excluded from government funding and PHS advisory roles for three years. Marchase said UAB barred Contreras from being PI on projects, animal protocols, and internal review board protocols, but that, "under a very tight mentoring and oversight system, he [would] be allowed to continue to do research on other folks' grants." However, said Marchese, UAB's and ORI's combined sanctions left few options for him. "Because there was really no position left for him, he chose to resign." Contreras initially agreed to comment on the matter, but later failed to return phone calls and emails from __The Scientist__. Though the motivation for the misconduct remains unclear, the case has increased the university's vigilance in monitoring research integrity, according to Marchese. "We really don't understand it," he said. "It's just not a situation that is in keeping with what it means to be a scientist."
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Life After Fraud;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/55772/
[July 2009]*linkurl:Harvard prof falsified sleep data;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/55606/
[9th April 2009]*linkurl:Misconduct from NIH postdoc;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/55429/
[17th February 2009]
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Comments

Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 8

July 13, 2009

This shows that the ORI - although with its cirtics - does work for the protection of science - and health of the people. \nBut in agriculture there is no such organization - and there is never resolution of such issues -until real investigations are done - with sequestering of the actual data and holding people accountable. \nAn example of such a situation can be found in the journal of animal science - several ( 12 ?) letters to the editor on reseach conducted by the pork board. One trial was a terminal sire line evaluation and in a paper the coauthors mentioned that they checked ther pedigrees of each sire and each was from a closed genetic popluation. But a fromer vet for one company testified in a letter to the editor and midwest univerisity that he was told to sample and did sample semen from 9 different genetic lines and has both internal and public documents. \nOne eye witness with any real data - in health field and steps are taken to resolve the issue -. Clear statements - and testimony - several letters to the editor in agriculture and nothing is done.
Avatar of: null null

null null

Posts: 2

July 13, 2009

A deliberate atttempt to falsify data for Fame and acceptance is NOT acceptable and condonable. What a career damage to the trainees and postdocs of Dr. Thomas!!!!\n\nI am not sure why it took so long as the rumors have been around for quite sometime about Dr. Thomas's findings. \n\n\n\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

July 13, 2009

The truth got out this time because of the in-fighting between the two collaborators. God only knows how many other such cases are out there, where people involved are still in good terms. This is a depressing thought. \n

July 13, 2009

Waste 23 millions of tax dollars and they go free? I think jail time is greatly warranted for these people. Isn't time to get tough on white collar crime to save this country?
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 16

July 13, 2009

So, will The Scientist not archive this article to prevent further damage to the careers of these scientists when their punishment is up?\n\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 16

July 13, 2009

Just curious.
Avatar of: Alison McCook

Alison McCook

Posts: 68

July 13, 2009

Hi-\n\nAs a news story, the article is free to anyone who has registered on our site. Currently, our policy leaves all news stories free to registered users indefinitely.\n\nThanks!\nAlison McCook\nDeputy Editor
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 8

July 13, 2009

Could care less about the reputations of the authors & their grad students. Question I would ask is, did any patients get treatment based on the papers?\nOutcome? Let the punishment fit the crime
Avatar of: Merrill Goozner

Merrill Goozner

Posts: 4

July 13, 2009

see http://www.gooznews.com/node/3004\n\nGood story. More sunshine on such cases is crucial to limiting scientific fraud, whatever its ultimate motivation.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 125

July 13, 2009

It's anyone's guess how many more fake articles there are in scientific publications.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 2

July 13, 2009

ORI says: "The extent of misconduct with the widespread dispersion of falsified results had the effect of increasing the credibility of the respondents and thereby increasing the acceptance of the falsified results by other researchers in the field," wrote Abbrecht in the ORI statement. "Such acceptance could lead to wasted research effort by other researchers and possibly placing patients at harm if they were enrolled in clinical trials designed on the basis of the falsified results." \n\nProtecting human subjects is the ultimate concern here, but in tough economic times, I have to wonder how much other research could have been funded with $23M. If you've ever been on the borderline with an index score of ~135-140 and just failed to make the "cut"... you know what I mean... L
Avatar of: Mortimer Brown

Mortimer Brown

Posts: 1

July 13, 2009

The only activity they should be allowed to perform in any scientific lab from now on is to keep the equipment and the bathrooms clean.
Avatar of: null null

null null

Posts: 5

July 13, 2009

Fraud is a crime in most spheres. Science is less understood by the public than say politics, banking and car sales. Fraud in these areas is usually understood to damage society, reduce trust and can lead to reform.\nFraud in science leads to occassional furious wrist slapping and the brutal mild-grant-drought.\n Deception in science needs to be criminalised. Then the real police can can act and enforce the law.\nAs it is, the laws of scientific integrity are mere guidelines. Enforcing scientific integrity currently is taken as seriously as enforcing bathroom etiquette.\nAs for the monkeys, they suffered for nothing. The researchers should be compelled to do an unfunded study quantifying the damage their work has done. Then they should go to a place where those who steal a kidney from butcher shop go...to court.\n
Avatar of: JEROME GELB

JEROME GELB

Posts: 1

July 13, 2009

There is no two ways about it! These researchers are smart criminals who remained undetected for 8 years & defrauded funders of tens of millions of dollars. \n\nCorporate fraudsters are receiving lengthy custodial sentences & so should scientific fraudsters, who potentially cause an even greater impact on innocent victims.......the chronically ill who may receive useless treatments or who never receive bonafide treatment that may have been developed with the wasted funds!\n\nI add my voice LOUDLY to the calls for criminalisation of scientific fraud!
Avatar of: Rick Bogle

Rick Bogle

Posts: 14

July 13, 2009

All the chatter about fraud, wasting money, possibly misleading other scientists, possibly putting patients at some risk, but not a word about the monkeys. Researchers routinely blather in public about how much they respect the animals they use and consider it a privilege to use them... but something like this comes along and no one mentions them.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

July 14, 2009

Thomas and Contreras have no place in medicine. They should be charged with attempted bodily harm and cruelness to animals. Where is the protection for patients and animals from monsters like this?
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 8

July 14, 2009

The damage done to the patients should be addressed. Will the pharmaceutical companies inform the clinical trials of this fraudulent research? Will the patients ever find out what has happened? Personally, they are the one's who should be informed but will never hear a word. If they did, a lot of suits would follow and we can't have that, now can we!!!!!
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 16

July 14, 2009

Faking data is clearly fraud. But what about "citation plagarism", arguably the most common abuse. That is, taking undue discovery credit. \n\nThis seems to be quite common these days. But nobody does anything about it. Complaints and even corrections to journals go unpublished, rather than rock the boat. In fact, "citation amnesia" seems to have become institutionalized at quite a high level.\n\nE.g., Alexander Grothendieck, in turning down the Crafoord prize in mathematics, denounced the tendency of the powerful in mathematics to appropriate the ideas and discoveries of lessor lights. See:\n\n http://pantelis.isaiah.googlepages.com/crafoordPrize.pdf
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 16

July 14, 2009

"In the two decades that have intervened the ethical standards of the sciences ( certainly in mathematics) have been degraded to such an extent that the most bare-faced plagiarism between colleagues ( often at the expense of those who can't defend themselves), seems to have become the norm. At least it is generally tolerated, even in exceptionally flagrant instances..."\n\n

July 15, 2009

Back in the early 90?s when scientific research fraud was rare, or at least rarely reported, I organized and convened a series of conferences on Ethics in Science, Technology and Medicine to be standalone events or at professional society meetings. See http://awisco.osu.edu/SpecialEvents.html. The conferences were well attended and generated a lot of discussion. Professional societies have the duty to foster discussion of professional misconduct and to promote ethical conduct in the professions. Although those efforts can serve as a deterrent to misconduct, it is clear they are not sufficient. Research fraud is no longer a rarity. There are numerous reports of abuse, deceit, research fraud, wrongdoing and other unethical behavior by individuals working in research, academia, government, etc. who are in positions of authority and privilege. The misuse of million of dollars and publication of faked research data which can mislead doctors and other researchers and cause suffering and death strikes me as criminal indeed. Criminalization of scientific fraud and severe penalties for the misuse of public funds are long overdue. Ethical principles, learned in high school and college, should inform the reasoning of every educated man or woman regarding the practice of their profession. Mandatory institutional training on the ethical conduct of research is still necessary but not sufficient. Fraud and other misconduct in research conducted with public funding should be subject to criminal and civil prosecution. Both the researchers AND their institutions should be penalized and required to make restitution of public funds. As one of the measures of success of a research institution is the number of dollars it receives in grants, currently institutions have a vested interest in denying wrongdoing and protecting researchers who receive government grants in order to continue to receive income from the grants. Only when it costs the institutions money, they will have an economic incentive to institutionalize effective measures to prevent and detect fraud. If fraud is detected and confirmed through random audits by the funding agencies, both the researchers and their institutions should face criminal charges. Those found guilty of fraud could be subject to progressive discipline in proportion to the gravity of the offenses committed. Their ability to work should be limited in the same manner other professionals have their licenses suspended or revoked for malpractice or malfeasance. \nReflecting on the growing national problem with fraud and deceit, it is obvious that our society has an extremely tolerant attitude toward misconduct misleadingly termed white collar crime. The name evokes the image of a person wearing a white shirt or other professional attire. A white lab coat inspires trust. With such innocuous image, mild name, and the absence of criminal penalties it is not surprising that white collar crime has proliferated and is currently at the root of our nation?s most serious problems. When politicians speak of being ?tough on crime? they play on popular but misleading stereotypes of what a ?real criminal? is. An example that comes to mind is; if we see a man on a dirty t-shirt on the street or the store, we probably try to keep away from him, hold tightly onto our purse or wallet and be somehow concerned that the person might be a ?criminal, who could steal from us.? If the same man is wearing a white shirt, the assumption might be that he is okay, not a threat. We are probably not likely to think about his potential for stealing from us ? big time ? from his desk or laboratory. Government has a duty to combat fraud and prevent harm to the public resulting from scientific as well as any other kind of fraud. Funding agencies must institute random audits of research findings at institutions receiving public funding. Professional societies could increase efforts to promote awareness and application of ethical principles in the professions and uphold the honor of the professions. But the mere existence of actual random audits of research papers with real individual and institutional financial penalties and possible imprisonment for the more serious offenses could compel researchers to conduct and report research in a most rigorous manner and keep all records of the data obtained as if it were evidence to be presented in court. \n\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 3

July 16, 2009

It took 8 years for this fraud to be exposed, even though everybody connected with this research was in a position to know. The reason for this is, of course, that blowing the whistle in cases like this is dangerous to your career. As long as whistleblowers are not protected, and in fact ostracized almost as badly as the fraudsters themselves, these things will continue.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 3

July 16, 2009

I am pleased to see that attention is being paid to this. I have experienced instances of this or questionable work in my research career. Some may have been due to 'flawed' techniques etc, but some were obviously fraudulent. Did I report those instances where I had first hand observation, NO I didn't! I did not even know where to report it to, I was young in the field, had no knowledge of this as a problem and left the ?seniors? to correct it, the Pi himself was implicit in virtually condoning it, no later retraction of the publication(s) were performed as far as I know. In this case I was actually ridiculed for being the bearer of bad news when my lab results contradicted the published claim from our lab. Incidentally, this contradiction was raised by another researcher in another laboratory across the world, I only confirmed it. "Don't ask don't tell" is definitely the entrenched status quo, especially if you are concerned about your career.\n\nIn another, the Pi himself said to me, in response to a comment from me about the quality of data going out of the lab, he said, {My name} "the important thing is to be ahead of the game and get the money, let those coming after clean it up". And indeed he was good at this game as he was and still is extremely well funded. The downside of this is that subsequent researchers, I was told, following my time in this lab, who were attempting to advance some work performed previously in this lab, found themselves literally "stuck dead in the water" so to speak.\n\nThe even greater downside to this, is the "COST of this FRAUD". When data is inaccurate and someone uses this as a basis or premise to test a hypothesis, the inferences themselves could be flawed. Continuing this cycle the knowledge base of the science could become so polluted as to be useless in time. A more obvious cost is realized when an attempt is made to commercialize an invention or product to be based on 'these distorted findings'. Under these circumstances, billions of dollars could be wasted in following these false leads. \n\nThese represents our toxic assets in our knowledge base, not unlike those in the financial area today.\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

July 16, 2009

I am not sure if there is more fraud now or I just happen to see reports on it now more often. Also, if it really is rising, do we detect it more often or it is really more often done?\nI agree with all that call for criminalization of scientific fraud. Those that steal from private persons get caught and are called criminals and may go to jail. Those that steal from the entire research and community in general hurt those applicants who were not awarded the money for real research, hurt the entire community by producing false data that may be used for human trials, or if they do human trials, patients get hurt by receiving inappropriate therapy, they also hurt those who because of the really good research that was not funded, live and die today without benefits that would be produced by the results good research would provide. This type of fraud is worse than any other fraud.
Avatar of: James Sacco

James Sacco

Posts: 10

December 30, 2009

Wow! UAB is really cracking... this is not the first time falsified studies have been reported at this institution. Is it because they have been lax, or is it because they are very vigilant? For the sake of true and honest science I hope it is the second reason.
Avatar of: DUNG LE

DUNG LE

Posts: 17

December 30, 2009

23 Mil $ as direct grants to these two forks, and, I believe, not less than the same were wasted by other researchers trying to follow what these two guys published.\n\nFocus on the 23 Mil $, how much of that went to UAB as indirect cost? Someone please help me do the math!\n\nHow will ORI keep UAB accountable? return the share? well, even so, that's not a punishment yet! I will not like the way Institutions spoke about the misconducts at their places as if it were someone else faults.\n\nIn the current system, it looks like the Institution is the most benefited (without having to pay the price) party of research misconducts. Their policy will be "close their eyes [no overseeing], get the money, and blame [the misconduct] on someone else". Finally, just fire the PI, then they are just free, clean and ready to hire other "too" ambitious researchers.\n\nI never get an NIH grant, but I believe a scoring method on Institutions hosting the grant applications should be revised. Those that have misconducts taking place should have a serious deduction in score, which will eventually reduce the chance [getting funded] of all applications from their Institution. All PIs should be well-informed about the scoring system. \n\nIn this case, one misconduct will hurt all PIs from the same Institution, which is a pressure to the PIs not to close their eyes on colleagues' potential misconducts. One misconduct taking place, will hurt the Institution in a way that, researchers tends to get away from those Institutions as they know the score on the Institutions will be low which will hurt their chance of getting funded. Finally, when PI at those Institutions are not well funded, the Institution loses their share as indirect cost.\n\nI am expecting responses from insiders of NIH grantees!\n\n

December 30, 2009

The many cases on scientific misconducts that have been revealed recently are surely disturbing enough. Nevertheless, it should be noted that such fraudulent behavior exists in several research fields and not only in biomedical sciences.I published two articles this year pointing to cases of "CITATION VIOLATION",or "CITATION AMNESIA", in the field of plant photosynthesis,where my original work was plagiarised.\nFor example, see the following reference:\n M. A. El-Sharkawy. 2009. Pioneering research on C4 leaf anatomical, physiological, and agronomic\ncharacteristics of tropical monocot and dicot plant species:Implications for crop water relations and productivity in comparison\nto C3 cropping systems. PHOTOSYNTHETICA 47 (2): 163-183.\n

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