Leading cancer scientist retracts two papers, one 14 years old, but journal won’t say why

One of the world’s leading cancer researchers, Axel Ullrich of Germany, has retracted two papers published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Ullrich, director of microbiology at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry, has been a central figure in many groundbreaking discoveries, from the development of genetically engineered insulin to the identification of the breast cancer gene HER2. The founder of several biotech firms, he also runs an international consortium, the Singapore Oncogenome Project, looking for other so-called oncogenes linked to protein-tyrosine kinase, or PTK, an enzyme that regulates cell growth and which, when run amok, is implicated in a variety of tumor types.

The retractions involve two articles, published eight years apart, on protein-tyrosine. The first, from 1996, was titledThe novel protein-tyrosine phosphatase PTP20 is a positive regulator of PC12 cell neuronal differentiation“; the second, from 2004: “Mutual regulation of protein-tyrosine phosphatase 20 and protein-tyrosine kinase Tec activities by tyrosine phosphorylation and dephosphorylation.”

Ullrich served as senior author on both papers and was joined on both by Japanese scientists Naohito Aoki and Yumiko Yamaguchi-Aoki (in the 2004 article, several other authors are listed as well).

The 1996 paper has been cited 35 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge, while the 2004 paper has been cited 13.

Here’s where things get strange. The retraction notices are completely opaque, for each the boilerplate sentence:

This manuscript has been withdrawn at the request of the authors.

Ullrich has not returned a request for comment. And when we tried to reach the JBC editors, we hit an even more frustrating information-free zone.

In an e-mail exchange with Retraction Watch, Nancy Rodnan, publication director for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, which puts out the journal, said the articles were

retracted by author. If you have further questions please contact the author or his institution.

That awkward construction didn’t quite jibe with the letter of the retraction notices, so we pressed a bit harder.

RW: There were several authors on those papers. Did you receive retraction requests from each of them? What assurances did you receive that they agreed with the retractions?

Also, did the nature of the request prompt the editors to look into any other papers by Dr. Ullrich?

NR: Communication is with the corresponding author.  All authors are notified.

We didn’t think that was very illuminating, and it probably raised more questions than it answered. So we tried Rodnan in her Bethesda, Maryland, office. That frustrating conversation didn’t help, either.

So we really don’t know very much about why these papers were retracted, who agreed to the retractions, or if there’s any backstory. If anyone knows more, please let us know. We’ll update with anything we hear.

Please see an update in which Ullrich explains why the papers were retracted.

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