Immunologist faked data
An immunologist duplicated images and falsified data in a study on regulating factors of autoimmune disease published in Nature Medicine in 2006, the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) reported.
Image: FlickrCreativeCommons/Julo According to ORI's linkurl:statement,;http://ori.dhhs.gov/misconduct/cases/Deng_Zhong_Bin.shtml released this fall, Zhong-Bin Deng, then a postdoc at the linkurl:Medical College of Georgia,;http://www.mcg.edu/ manipulated data to show that the autoimmune regulator (AIRE
An immunologist duplicated images and falsified data in a study on regulating factors of autoimmune disease published in Nature Medicine
in 2006, the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) reported.
According to ORI's linkurl:statement,;http://ori.dhhs.gov/misconduct/cases/Deng_Zhong_Bin.shtml released this fall, Zhong-Bin Deng, then a postdoc at the linkurl:Medical College of Georgia,;http://www.mcg.edu/ manipulated data to show that the autoimmune regulator (AIRE) gene controls the growth and maturation of invariant natural killer T cells, or iNKT. iNKT cells are thought to be a driver of autoimmune diseases that affect the endocrine system. The research was supported by funds from the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
In the paper, which was cited three times, according to ISI, figure 1a showed that the number of iNKT cells is lower in AIRE-deficient mice than in those with normal or elevated AIRE levels. But an investigative committee at the Medical College of Georgia found that Deng substituted flow cytometry plots of AIRE-saturated thymus and liver tissue for those with normal levels of AIRE. The researcher also substituted plots for AIRE-deficient bone marrow tissue with those for tissue with normal AIRE levels. Figure 2 in the supplementary materials contained duplicated flow cytometry plots in four different graphs, representing four cases of falsified data.
Deng claimed he observed that the number of iNKT cells was indeed reduced in AIRE-deficient mice in earlier experiments, "but wanted to have the best pictures for the manuscript submission," a spokesman for the ORI wrote in an email to The Scientist
. He added that Deng said he had created the falsified figures for an internal review, but was not able to see they were included in the final manuscript after he was removed as first author during the submission process.
The paper was accepted by Nature Medicine
on May 3, 2006 and appeared in the June 2006 issue. Soon after its publication, a researcher in the same field of immunology as the study's authors, but who didn't work directly with them, approached the journal about the identical flow cytometry plots in separate figures. "The authors didn't really have an explanation for the duplication (which also involved cutting and pasting, making it less acceptable that it had been a clerical error)," Juan Carlos Lopez, the chief editor of Nature Medicine
, wrote in an email to The Scientist
. "[But] they stood by the data and claimed to have the correct results on file."
"We didn't realize there was a problem until we got a notice from the journal to go back and check the raw data," said linkurl:Qing-Sheng Mi,;http://www.henryford.com/body.cfm?id=38441&action=detail&ref=4331 now at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Michigan, and the study's lead author. At that point, Deng admitted to substituting the figures and resigned from his position at the Medical College of Georgia.
The journal retracted the paper in September 2006, linkurl:stating;http://www.nature.com/nm/journal/v12/n9/full/nm0906-1100b.html that the "number of figures affected means that the appropriate response is to retract this paper," but that the original data supported the study's conclusions.
The university then conducted a formal investigation of the incident. Frank Treiber, Vice President for Research at the medical college sent the investigation's final report to the ORI in February 2007. "This type of behavior directly contradicts [the Medical College of Georgia's] mission... and is not tolerated at this institution," the college said in a statement to The Scientist
"This is obviously bad, but at least they did not doctor up all the data," said linkurl:Luc Van Kaer,;http://www.mc.vanderbilt.edu/microbio/vankaer/ an immunologist at Vanderbilt University who cited Deng's study after its retraction. Since the retraction, two papers published by other groups in the Journal of Autoimmunity
and European Journal of Immunology
have further demonstrated the role of AIRE in iNKT cell development and autoimmune diseases, he said.
Since leaving the Medical College of Georgia, Deng has continued his immunology research at the linkurl:University of Alabama -- Birmingham;http://rheum.dom.uab.edu/ and has published studies in the Journal of Immunology
, the American Journal of Pathology
, and the International Journal of Cancer
According to the terms of Deng's voluntary settlement agreement with the ORI, any institution that receives US Public Health Service funding for research he conducts in the next two years must submit a supervisory plan for the immunologist's activities to the ORI. The research team must also provide proof to the ORI that his research was monitored and accurately reported in any of the project's publications. Deng is also prohibited from serving on Public Health Service advisory committees and acting as a peer reviewer.
Deng did not reply to email and phone requests for comment.
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[16th February 2009]