The work of Sam W. Lee, a cancer biologist at Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital, has come under fire at Science Fraud lately over concerns about the possible reuse of images in his group’s published studies.
Turns out there’s some there, there after all. The journal Current Biology has issued a pretty thorny correction for one of Lee’s 2006 articles, “RhoE Is a Pro-Survival p53 Target Gene that Inhibits ROCK I-Mediated Apoptosis in Response to Genotoxic Stress,” citing multiple issues with its figures:
It has been brought to the authors’ attention that incorrect images for Figure 2A and the left panel of Figure 4D were selected during the figure preparations for this article. We thus provide corrected versions of Figures 2 and 4here.
In the originally published Figure 2A “Expression of RhoE protein and mRNA in RhoE knockdown cells,” the northern blot panel for the loading control (36B4) does not match the experimental conditions described in the figure. It has been pointed out to us that this panel is very similar to Figure 4A in another of our publications (J. Biol. Chem. 279, 38597–38602; September 10, 2004). It is possible that this is an inadvertent duplication, but at this point we regrettably cannot confirm or disprove this. Therefore, the experiments have been repeated, and the new Figure 2A is shown here.
In addition, in the originally published Figure 4D “Effect of ROCK I inhibitor (Y-27632) on CPT-mediated apoptosis,” the panel for DMSO control (0.1% apoptosis) was misplaced in the next panel for Y-27632-treated control (0.3% apoptosis). In order to ensure integrity of the data, the experiments have been repeated, and the results reproducing the original data are shown in the new Figure 4D here.
Neither of these errors affects the results or conclusions of the article. The authors apologize for these errors and any confusion that may have resulted.
We were particularly drawn to this part of the notice:
It is possible that this is an inadvertent duplication, but at this point we regrettably cannot confirm or disprove this. Therefore, the experiments have been repeated, and the new Figure 2A is shown here.
It’s indeed regrettable that the lab cannot demonstrate the provenance of its data. On those grounds alone, we’d expect a retraction, not a correction. We have reached out to the editor for more information on this case and will update this post as we learn more.
The paper has been cited 46 times, according to Google Scholar.
Lee was not immediately available for comment. His secretary initially suggested we speak with a Dr. Bringhurst — whom we believe might be F. Richard Bringhurst, MGH’s senior VP for medicine and research management — about the paper, but we pointed out that his name doesn’t appear on list of authors.
The original Science Fraud post, dated August 13, does not mention the Current Biology paper, focusing rather on a 2009 article in Molecular Cell, “GAMT, a p53-inducible modulator of apoptosis, is critical for the adaptive response to nutrient stress,” and another in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, “DDR1 receptor tyrosine kinase promotes prosurvival pathway through Notch1 activation.”
But the Current Biology paper did crop up in a subsequent comment, and was among papers about which Clare Francis raised concerns in an August 15 to the journal and others — suggesting that, if that was roughly when the journal learned of the problem, it acted pretty swiftly.
We’ll keep an eye out for more corrections, and possibly retractions, in the near future from this lab.
Update, 12:15 p.m. Eastern, 11/20/12: Current Biology editor Geoffrey North tells us:
We first heard about the potential problems with the Lee paper in an email from a concerned anonymous reader.
With regard to the issue of duplication (or not), I am agnostic. We consulted with the relevant institutional RIO about the matter and there was an institution investigation which concluded that it was impossible to resolve conclusively if there was a duplication. As described in the Erratum in the latest issue of Current Biology, the authors have replicated the experiments and reproduced the published data.
Update, 3:45 p.m. Eastern, 11/20/12: We spoke with Lee this afternoon, and he told us, in a word, that the problem stemmed from the sloppiness of the first author —Pat Ongusaha, then a post-doc — rather than misconduct. Said Lee of the missing figure:
For some reason we don’t have that loading control plot. The post-doc lost it some time back. We looked through the notebooks and couldn’t find it.
As for Ongusaha, who is now at the University of Chicago, Lee said:
I think she’s a very thorough person. I don’t know how that happened.
We tried Ongusaha, but were told she was traveling this week.
Lee said his group has passed on all of its relevant lab materials to research integrity officials at Harvard and Mass. General, but he wouldn’t confirm the pending retractions or corrections of other papers.
Update, 4 p.m. Eastern, 11/20/12: It turns out this wasn’t Lee’s first mega-correction. Here’s one from Nature in January, as commenter michaelbriggs notes, for “Selective killing of cancer cells by a small molecule targeting the stress response to ROS.” Two things are worth pointing out. One, Ongusaha is not an author. Two, the correction includes this sentence, which seems a lot like the “we regrettably cannot confirm or disprove” language in the Current Biology notice:
We have also been unable to verify without doubt that the image in Supplementary Fig. 9b shows four different mice within the treated and untreated groups and therefore wish to replace this figure (see Fig. 2 of this Corrigendum).