Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Canadian researchers in legal battle over investigation object to third retraction

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The Journal of Clinical InvestigationA third retraction — and a notice of concern — have emerged from the investigation into a husband and wife research team at the University of Toronto that found evidence of faked images and duplicated data.

The problem, according to the latest retraction note for Sylvia Asa and Shereen Ezzat, in the Journal of Clinical Investigation: Portions of the RT-PCR gels “are duplicated in this publication and in a subsequent publication.” That subsequent publication is a 2003 paper that has received a Notice of Concern from the American Journal of Pathology.

According to the retraction note, co-author Gillian E. Wu of York University signed off on the journal’s decision, but Asa, Ezzat and second author Lei Zheng dissented to the retraction. Third author Xian-Feng Zhu couldn’t be reached. Although corresponding author Asa noted that “the initial screen of these samples support the conclusions made in the paper,” the JCI made its position perfectly clear in the note:

The JCI’s policies prohibit data manipulation and data duplication. Therefore, the JCI is retracting this article.

The study, “Targeted expression of a human pituitary tumor–derived isoform of FGF receptor-4 recapitulates pituitary tumorigenesis,” examined the pathogenetic mechanisms that lead to tumors in pituitary glands. It has been cited 122 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

Here’s the full retraction notice.

An investigation by the University Health Network recently found that portions of the RT-PCR gels shown in Figure 1, B (PGK-1 panel) and C (FGFR1 panel), are duplicated in this publication and in a subsequent publication (1). The samples were labeled differently in the panels, and the marker was shifted in Figure 1B. The corresponding author has indicated that other data from the initial screen of these samples support the conclusions made in the paper; however, the original data for the RT-PCR gels shown in Figure 1 are no longer available. The JCI’s policies prohibit data manipulation and data duplication. Therefore, the JCI is retracting this article. No issues have been raised in regard to any of the other data in this manuscript. Gillian E. Wu has agreed with the journal’s decision to retract the paper. Sylvia Asa, Shereen Ezzat, and Lei Zheng dissent from the retraction. Coauthor Xian-Feng Zhu could not be reached.

And here’s the notice of concern for the 2003 paper:

It has been brought to our attention that Figure 2 A of “Ikaros Isoforms in Human Pituitary Tumors: Distinct Localization, Histone Acetylation, and Activation of the 5′ Fibroblast Growth Factor Receptor-4 Promoter,” by Shereen Ezzat, Shunjiang Yu, and Sylvia L. Asa (Volume 163, Issue 3, pages 1177–1184 of the September 2003 issue of The American Journal of Pathology; http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0002-9440(10)63477-3) contains data for PGK-1 that are identical to data published in Figure 1B of Ezzat et al J Clin Invest 2002, 109:69–78; http://dx.doi.org/10.1172/JCI14036).

Thumbnail image of Figure 2. Opens large image

Figure 2

A: The products of the reverse transcription reactions amplified with PGK-1 primers yield the expected 338-bp product, confirming intact quality of RNA.

This matter was brought to the attention of the Editors by a concerned reader in November 2012. The Editors commenced an inquiry into the data. Initial communication between the editorial office and the corresponding author Dr. Asa failed to resolve the matter. Therefore, in March 2013 the Editors contacted University Health Network, University of Toronto, (Toronto, ON, Canada), with which all authors are affiliated, and requested an investigation of the data.

The University Health Network, University of Toronto, appointed an investigative committee. Dr. Christopher Paige, Vice-President of Research, University Health Network, and Dr. Charles Chan, Vice-President of Medical Affairs & Quality, University Health Network, informed the Editors in April 2015 that the images in question were identical and that primary data were not available for review. Dr. Asa has since replied with a replacement image from the same sample set, obtained during the same time that original data were analyzed. The corrected Figure 2A (PGK-1) (with relevant portions of the legend) appears below. Dr. Asa states, “The authors regret this error and are providing the original PGK-1 data for the tumors shown in Figure 2 in the accompanying figure.”

Sylvia Asa and Shereen Ezzat have since requested a judicial review following the investigation, asking to quash the decision and to launch a new probe into the issue that would include cross-examinations of witnesses, according to the Canadian Press CBC.

As we reported, Asa has stepped down as program medical director of the University Healthcare Network’s Laboratory Medicine Program, the largest hospital diagnostic lab in the country. Two other papers from the group have been retracted.

We saw in the Star that Asa and Ezzat’s research labs had both been suspended because of the investigation; UHN spokesperson Gillian Howard confirmed that to us, as well:

The laboratory which has been suspended is the research laboratory of Drs. Asa and Ezzat.

Court documents showed that a former staff member admitted to altering images and said using Photoshop in the lab was common.

We’ve asked the journal’s editor-in-chief Howard Rockman for a statement. We’ve also reached out to Asa, Ezzat, and Wu for comment. We’ll update with any reply.

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