Update (July 1, 2021): KU Leuven completed its investigation last year, concluding that there were “no breaches of research integrity,” according to a summary report posted on July 16, 2020. The institution’s review focused on four recent publications coauthored by Catherine Verfaillie and found that: “It is true that a limited number of figures contained an inaccuracy that is not in line with the high standards that are rightly set for scientific figures. Nevertheless, a thorough study of all aspects of the case has shown that these figures were composed in good faith and that there can be no question of an infringement of research integrity.”
KU Leuven is investigating allegations that one of its researchers, acclaimed stem cell biologist Catherine Verfaillie, was involved in falsifying research in at least 10 scientific papers published between 1999 and 2018, Belgian newspaper De Tijd reported last week (December 6). The allegations, based on concerns raised by molecular biologist Elisabeth Bik and others on Pubpeer, center on the potential manipulation of photographs and other figures in Verfaillie’s papers.
“I want to stress that we continue to have every trust in the researchers concerned, as long as the outcome of the procedure remains unknown,” KU Leuven’s rector Luc Sels tells De Tijd (translated by The Brussels Times). “Above all, this is about the scientific accuracy of the articles, not about nailing individuals to the cross. The name of Catherine Verfaillie is now being brought forward prominently, but several authors worked on the papers. Even if mistakes are shown, it remains to be seen who exactly is responsible.”
Verfaillie’s research centers on techniques to differentiate bone marrow cells called multipotent adult progenitor cells (MAPCs) into various different cell types. Writing in The Scientist in 2002 about a high-profile Nature study Verfaillie’s group published that year, bioethicist Arlene Judith Klotzko noted that, “until now, it was believed that only embryonic stem cells had such an open biological future. MAPCs are remarkably malleable; they are also far less morally contentious.”
Complaints about Verfaillie’s work have been accumulating for years. In 2007, an investigation by the University of Minnesota, where Verfaillie ran her group until that point, found that the data used in the group’s 2002 paper were “significantly flawed,” leaving the paper’s conclusions “potentially incorrect.” The investigation was followed by a number of retractions and corrections to several of the group’s papers.
Verfaillie wasn’t directly implicated in the investigation or subsequent retractions, which centered mostly on her PhD student coauthors. For Better Science, which asked Bik to look into some of Verfaillie’s papers and first published the latest allegations on December 4, notes that, following her move to KU Leuven in 2006, Verfaillie received millions of euros in grant money from the EU Commission and Belgium’s Flanders Innovation and Entrepreneurship agency.
The latest concerns raised by Bik suggest that corrections of previous papers don’t go far enough in addressing errors in the group’s publications and draw attention to numerous other instances of possible image manipulation. Documenting her efforts on her blog Science Integrity Digest, Bik writes: “I found 10 additional papers from Verfaillie’s group with possible duplicated images. In addition, I found previously unreported problems in the Nature 2002 paper.”
Sels tells De Tijd that the current investigation is preliminary, and emphasizes that the university committee investigating will not be rushing to judgment on the matter.
Catherine Offord is an associate editor at The Scientist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.