Previously questioned Nature paper on innate immunity retracted

courtesy Nature

Last week, we noted a Nature editorial in which the journal came clean about its higher-than-average number of retractions this year — four. What we missed was the fact that the fourth retraction of the year also appeared in last week’s issue.

The retraction, of a paper called “The large-conductance Ca2+-activated K+ channel is essential for innate immunity,” reads (link to the author’s homepage added):

The authors wish to retract this Letter after the report of an inability to reproduce their results1, later confirmed by another2. The studies the authors then conducted led to an internal investigation by University College London, please see the accompanying Supplementary Information for details. The retraction has not been signed by Jatinder Ahluwalia.

Oddly, at the time of this posting, the Supplementary Information link goes to a PDF that reads: “The Supplementary Information accompanying this retraction is currently unavailable.” [See this update.]

The paper, which has been cited 114 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge, reported that when researchers blocked a particular cellular channel with iberiotoxin, cells could no longer kill and digest microbes. Those findings, however, were disproven in two later papers — one in the Journal of General Physiology in 2006, and another in the American Journal of Physiology: Cell Physiology in 2007.

We emailed the University of Washington, Seattle’s Ferric Fang, who cited the study in a review, for his comments on the retraction (we added links):

This article received extensive publicity when it first came out and shocked many investigators in the field.  However, the influence of the work has turned out to be limited because the new paradigm proposed by the Segal group has not proven to be useful for moving the field forward.  My lab actually obtained the mice used by Ahluwalia et al. but did not obtain results consistent with theirs.

We ended up abandoning that particular line of investigation after wasting a number of months.  You can probably tell from my review article in Nature Reviews Microbiology that I had already become skeptical about the Nature papers (there were two related papers in Nature, one by Reeves in 2002 and the retracted one by Ahluwalia in 2004).

Subsequently, other researchers (cited in the retraction) showed that human neutrophils do not contain the BK channels purported by Ahluwalia et al. to be responsible for the antimicrobial actions of neutrophils.  In addition to the articles cited, you might find the commentary by Tom DeCoursey in Am J Physiol Cell Physiol 293:C30, 2007 to be of interest.

I do believe that false findings in prominent journals can have a harmful effect on research progress.  However, in this particular case, the dramatic nature of the claim and the inability of others to find corroborating evidence served to limit the damage.  This time, science worked the way it is supposed to, and the retraction turns out to be rather anti-climactic.

We contacted the paper’s senior author, Anthony Segal, who referred us to University College, London’s media relations office. We’ve tried to contact Ahluwalia, and we’ll update if we hear anything back.

The newest retraction joins the retraction last month of a 2010 paper on stem cells by Amy Wagers and colleagues, a July retraction of a 2005 paper on HIV infection, and an April retraction of a 2008 study of a chronic viral infection.

Please see an update with comments from Tom DeCoursey, who led one of the groups who questioned the original findings.

2 thoughts on “Previously questioned Nature paper on innate immunity retracted”

  1. It seems pretty clear that “internal” investigations will ALWAYS blame the more junior scapegoats. It is easiest for UCL to blame Dr Ahluwalia, especially now that he is no longer at UCL, especially since this would not compromise the reputation or research grants of UCL personnel, e.g. Dr. Ahluwalia’s supervisor. Frankly, given that this paper was immediately doubted by other scientists, one would have expected more care on the part of the supervisor. If UCL wants to show any ethical validity in such cases, it is necessary that such investigations be carried out by personnel EXTERNAL to UCL and that the choice of the individuals to carry out the investigation should be independent of UCL.

    What about the journals? They also have a vested interest in seeing that such situations remain as “obscure” as possible, that only low level scapegoats emerge, that “influential” people are not discredited and that their “refereeing system” is not discredited. Was the usual Nature refereeing process applied or were “insider” pressures exerted on editors and /or referees?

    Frankly what should happen in such cases is that an external, independent body undertake the investigation – looking at both how the fraud was committed (and in this case there were apparently two questionable papers – only one of which has Dr. Ahluwalia as an author – seems strange that Prof. Segal would refer you to a “media” deparment) and at how the refereeing process failed. Both the journal and the authors of the discredited paper should be required to participate in this process under penalty of publishing the fact of their refusal.

    There is no doubt that an “insider mafia” operates in many cases and it is as necessary to clarify whether the supervisor exercised the proper “due diligence” and how the paper made it through a refereeing process as to assign blame to a low level scientist. Neither UCL nor Nature are in a position to guarantee that a proper independent investigation has been carried out.

    1. At the end of the day, if a junior scientist decides to falsify data and spike other researchers reagents then there is little a supervisor can do. At the end of the day science is a matter of trust between supervisor and junior researchers. Of course eventually the truth will emerge. It is likely that this did not occur until Dr Ahluwalia left the lab and stopped spiking research chemicals. Personally I think that Dr Ahluwalia’s supervisor acted correctly in this matter.

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