Sheng Wang, assistant professor of medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) Cancer Research Center until last month, committed research misconduct, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Research Integrity (ORI) announced last Friday (August 5). Specifically, the ORI determined that Wang fabricated data published in two 2009 papers in the journals Molecular Endocrinology (ME) and Oncogene, both of which Wang has agreed to retract.
The falsified figures show real-time PCR data—a technique used to locate genes and quantify their expression—and chromatin immunoprecipitation (ChIP)—used to determine how and where proteins interact with DNA in the cell—to support their conclusions about the HIC1 protein’s pivotal role in tumor suppression.
HIC1 (“hypermethylated in cancer 1”) is a protein known to suppress cell growth. The gene that encodes HIC1 was recently shown to be epigenetically disrupted in human tumors, and its expression has been linked to better outcomes in some breast cancers. Using both PCR and ChIP, Wang and his colleagues showed that HIC1 acts via a downstream protein called Brg1. In a follow up study, the researchers found that HIC1 is required for estrogen neutralizers—which combat certain breast cancers—to effectively suppress tumor growth.
The fabricated data affected six of the eight figures in the Oncogene paper, which has been cited 9 times, according to ISI, and six of the seven figures in the ME paper, which has not been cited. Though neither paper has yet been retracted, and neither journal could confirm whether it was considering such a move, Wang must retract them according to his agreement with the ORI. “The retraction of the articles is in accordance with the decision reached by the ORI,” Maria Pantages Ober, director of communications for BUSM, said in a statement.
But researchers say the impending retractions will not significantly impact the field’s understanding of HIC1’s role in tumor suppression, as the papers’ basic findings have been shown in other studies.
“This will not impact our paper, although it is, of course, very concerning,” Susan Cohn, professor of Pediatrics at the University of Chicago who cited the Oncogene paper, said in an email.
“Even if their conclusion [that HIC1 requires interaction with Brg1 to control cell-growth-related genes] was not correct, other studies have demonstrated that Brg1 can interact with other tumor suppressors, such as Prohibitin and TopBP,” added Danuta Radzioch, professor of medicine at McGill University in Montreal who also cited the Oncogene paper, in an email.
The details surrounding the misconduct remain murky. The ORI’s determination of research misconduct came after an investigation initiated by Boston University, according to a statement issued by Ober. The University would not release details of how suspicions first arose nor when the investigation began. According to Ober, Wang’s employment ended on July 15, but she declined to provide any further information on the circumstances of his departure or his current whereabouts. At the time of publication, Wang had not responded to The Scientist’s requests for comment. Douglas Faller, director of the Cancer Research Center at BUSM and a coauthor on both papers in question, declined to comment.
As a result of the ORI’s findings, Wang is ineligible for federal funding for 2 years. Wang’s acceptance of ORI’s sanctions is not an admission of guilt. As a common condition of ORI agreements, researchers are not required to do so, though an admission “could be considered a mitigating circumstance justifying a somewhat reduced administrative action,” John Dahlberg, ORI Division of Investigative Oversight director, wrote in an email to The Scientist.