Update on gene therapy researcher Savio Woo retractions: Two post-docs dismissed for fraud

More on the case of Savio Woo, the New York gene therapy researcher who, as Retraction Watch reported  this week, had several papers pulled by noted journals.

Two of Woo’s post-doctoral fellows at Mount Sinai School of Medicine were dismissed for “research misconduct,” said Ian Michaels, a spokesman for the institution. According to Michaels:

When Dr. Savio L C Woo came to suspect that two post-doctoral fellows in his laboratory may have engaged in research misconduct he notified the Mount Sinai Research Integrity Office. Mount Sinai immediately initiated institutional reviews that resulted in both post-doctoral fellows being dismissed for research misconduct. At no time were there allegations that Dr. Woo had engaged in research misconduct. As part of its review, the investigation committee looked into this possibility and confirmed that no research misconduct could be attributed to Dr. Woo, who voluntarily retracted the papers regarding the research in question. Mount Sinai reported the results of its investigations to the appropriate government agencies and continues to cooperate with them as part of its commitment to adhere to the highest standards for research integrity.

We have plenty of other questions for Mount Sinai about the details of the investigation—including when the post-docs were let go, which Michaels declined to answer—and will update when we learn more.

8 thoughts on “Update on gene therapy researcher Savio Woo retractions: Two post-docs dismissed for fraud”

  1. While Woo may not directly implicated, it would be interesting to know to what extent he pressured his people for useful results.

    1. In similar vein, why did he keep these two post docs around for so long (at least 5 years judging by the dates of the retracted papers)? Were these two wunderkinds producing the preferred results?

  2. I totally agree with RSS. Many,many PI’s create a terrible work environment, are bad mentors, and put an enormous amount of pressure on their young postdocs. And these postdocs become convenient “fall guys” when things go wrong. Postdocs have few if any rights (unless perhaps they have independent funding) in a university setting. Postdocs in the NIH intramural program, on the other hand, enjoy much more expanded rights and privileges and are treated like the valued employees and trainees that they are. The NIH model should be expanded to universities.

    1. The intramural PIs at the NIH have to undergo an exteral site visit every 4 years with the possibility of lab closure or reduction of resources. This places the PI under pressure to get results which is transfered to the post-docs to get results. The intramural post-doc is NOT an employee and can be exposed to the same bullying as extramural. The NIH has also had a history of intramural post-docs being caught manipulating/making up data.

      1. Just curious, are you at the NIH? We had a site visit last year and it was extremely low pressure, partly because all the results are reviewed retrospectively, as compared to a largely prospective grant application. Possibly, for those labs/groups that are , for whatever reason, lower down on the food chain at the NIH, these site visits are more of a high pressure situation. Having been both extramural and intramural, I definitely feel that there are more resources for dealing with potential problems at the postdoc level and more support overall for postdocs at the NIH. We even just had a fellow appreciation day with the extremely amiable Francis Collins posing for pictures will all comers. Postdocs are still trainees at the NIH, but at least where I am we are treated more like valued employees rather than disposable “hired help” which was my experience at a major extramural research institution.

  3. I was at the NIH until a couple months ago. When i first got there 6 years back, my then PI had a very bad site visit and his lab was closed. I was moved under another PI (definite advantage of intramural rather than just being let go) but subsequent site visits were always stressful and there was pressure to perform. I know first hand of one occasion where a post-doc was physically assaulted by her supervisor during this time (the supervisor was subsequently fired) but it is an example of the pressures. I also know of a number of cases of scientific fraud by intramural post-docs. Whether any link can be made to their supervisors, I don’t know. I do know that there is pressure to publish in order to get that dream job, keep that grant, get tenured etc which has nothing to do with supervisors. Even the “extremely amiable” Francis Collins himself has been tainted by scientific fraud (by a post-doc) in his lab in Genome a few years back.

  4. I am scared. I am working on my PhD but I am not sure if I want all this pressure. I already got a lot of pressure.

    1. If you do a postdoc, pick your lab carefully and don’t just necessarily pick a well-known lab or the lab that has the latest and greatest equipment. When the PI interviews you, makes sure you are comfortable with him/her and look for someone who is really interested in mentoring trainees. Also make sure you ask direct questions to the people who work in the lab about the work environment, and it’s also highly advisable to contact people on the lab alumni list to get possibly more candid options. And during your interview day, if someone in the lab asks you to step across the street to grab a cup of coffee so they can privately give you the “real scoop” on what’s like to work there….run. There are some labs out there that are both doing great work and that have great work environments. You can find them if you look hard enough.

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