Top GSK Scientist Fired Over Paper

The head of GlaxoSmithKline’s Shanghai neurodegenerative-disease research unit is axed after irregularities are uncovered in a 2010 paper he published.

Jun 19, 2013
Bob Grant

GSK's London HeadquartersWIKIMEDIA, KTO288Jingwu Zang, a GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) researcher who established the London-based company’s China presence, has been fired after questions were raised about irregularities in figures accompanying a Nature Medicine paper on the mechanisms of multiple sclerosis (MS) that he coauthored in 2010. GSK conducted an investigation into the paper’s irregularities, and the company officially terminated Zang, who ran the neurodegenerative-disease research center in Shanghai, last Sunday (June 9). “Regretfully, our investigation has established that certain data in the paper were indeed misrepresented,” said GSK in a statement posted on June 10. “We’ve shared our conclusion that the paper should be retracted and are in the process of asking all of the authors to sign a statement to that effect.”

At issue is a figure in the paper, which pertained to the role of the interleukin-7 receptor (IL-7R) and T-helper 17 (TH17) immune cells in MS, showing blood samples from healthy human subjects but captioned as coming from MS patients. Both Zang, who led the research team that authored the paper, and Xuebin Liu, first author on the paper, admit the mistake, but claim that it was unintentional and that it does not change their overall conclusion that IL-7R plays a role in the over-expansion of TH17 cells, which contributes to MS progression. Another problem with the paper, uncovered by a pharmaceutical blog after news of the investigation into the blood sample figure surfaced, involves the duplication of an image that is presented as two separate results of two different experimental conditions in the study. Liu told Nature that the duplication was a result of the editing and layout process at Nature Medicine and not a mistake made by the authors. Juan Carlos López, Nature Medicine’s chief editor, declined to comment on the situation.

The main conclusion of Liu and Zang’s paper largely agrees with results from other research teams. But one study, published in Science Translational Medicine in 2011, failed to replicate their results exactly. While a team of researchers from Stanford University and Rinat, a San Francisco-based Pfizer subsidiary, found that blocking IL-7R in a mouse model of MS treated the condition, they failed to find the mechanistic connection between IL-7R and TH17 cells that Zang’s team reported. Liu chalked up the difference to the fact that the California-based researchers—even though they reported diligently following Liu’s and Zang’s experimental protocol—used mature TH17 cells while the Chinese team used undifferentiated cells. “It’s a different protocol, a different stage,” Liu told Nature.

Liu resigned from his position at GSK on June 9, but both he and Zang have refused to sign off on retracting their paper from Nature Medicine.