Lab gadfly PETA pressures AACR, gets retraction from sanctioned scientist

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) may not be on most scientists’ list of Facebook friends, but we’re grateful to them for a hat tip. Several days ago, we were approached by Justin Goodman, associate director of PETA’s laboratory investigations department, with a new twist on an old story.

First, a little history: In September 2009, the Office of Research Integrity sanctioned an ex-Vanderbilt cancer researcher named Nagendra S. Ningaraj. According to the agency, Ningaraj

engaged in scientific misconduct by falsifying MALDI-MS images and mass spectral tracings and associated text in Figure 21 reported in National Cancer Institute (NCI), National Institutes of Health (NIH), grant application 1 U54 CA119421-01 and by falsifying MALDI-MS images in a presentation during the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) meeting held on April 16-20, 2005, which cited support from NCI, NIH, grants R25 CA92943 and P50 CA098131.

In other words, he faked a bunch of material in an NIH grants application, and at an AACR meeting — not good. Getting more specific, ORI alleged that:

1. Respondent reversed the images for the control and minoxidil- treated brains in Figure 21 of the 1 U54 CA119421-01 grant application, claiming that minoxidil increased delivery of Gleevec to the tumor. Respondent also reversed the same images in a presentation during the AACR meeting in April 2005.

2. In Figure 21 of the 1 U54 CA119421-01 grant application, Respondent reported mass spectral tracings as having been obtained from brain tumors in Gleevec-treated mice that had been pretreated with minoxidil, while in fact they were pretreated with another potassium channel opener, NS1619, and Respondent falsely stated the minoxidil pretreatment caused an 8-fold increase in Gleevec delivery to brain tumors (compared to non-minoxidil pretreated tumors).

3. Respondent further falsified Figure 21 of the 1 U54 CA119421-01 grant application by juxtaposing the reversed MALDI-MS images (obtained with mioxidil) with the mass spectral tracings (obtained with NS1619) in the same figure and by failing to report that the images and spectra in the figure were actually obtained in totally different experiments, performed on different dates and with different K+ agonist pretreatments.

According to a Nov. 25, 2009 article in The Scientist,

Upon investigation, it was discovered that Ningaraj had switched the experimental image of brain tumors treated with both an agonist and antitumor drug with the control image of tumors receiving only the anticancer drug and no agonist. Ningaraj’s actual experiment showed, surprisingly, that there was more crossing of the blood-brain barrier without the agonist. By reversing the data, he was able to support his hypothesis that the agonist increased the antitumor drug’s ability to cross the blood-brain tumor barrier, and thus increased its anticancer activity, said a spokesperson from ORI.

Ningaraj agreed to a three-year period of probation, during which time he can’t work on projects supported by the Public Health Service without supervision.

All of which strikes us as a fairly simple case of crime and punishment. Cue PETA and the AACR.

On Oct. 20, 2009, PETA began lobbying AACR to retract the Ningaraj abstract with a letter to the group’s CEO, Margaret Foti. The letter, signed by a PETA researcher, briefly rehashed the ORI report on Ningaraj before closing with a few demands:

Mr. Ningaraj’s complete disregard for research and medical ethics reveals not only a disrespect for animals, but for his colleagues and the lives of people devastated by malignant brain tumors who are relying on scientists to use their expertise and sound judgment to judiciously employ the limited resources available to develop effective treatments and cures. We urge your organization to formally alert all of its members and supporters that the data presented by Mr. Ningaraj was fabricated.

After more than two months of radio silence, PETA in early December again reached out to Foti. This time the group received a response from Diane Scott-Lichter, who insisted that AACR takes “these issues seriously and appreciate your bringing it to our attention.” However, she offered nothing more than that.

When pressed in a follow-up e-mail about whether AACR would be retracting the abstract, Scott-Lichter replied merely that she had received the message.

And so on through the spring. Finally, however, AACR has acted. According to Goodman, who has been checking the group’s website — Scott-Lichter’s recommended course of action — regularly, a retraction notice for Ningaraj’s 2005 abstract finally appeared within the past few weeks. The retraction notice, which now seems to go to a broken page, states that ORI

found that Nagendra S. Ningaraj, PhD, had engaged in scientific misconduct by falsifying images presented [at the 2005 AACR meeting]. Dr. Ningaraj neither admits nor denies any of the allegations in the settlement agreement with ORI, and this agreement should not be construed as an admission of liability.

All of which sounds to us like the echoes of a lawyer’s threat. For those curious about why PETA would give a rat’s ___ about retraction, Goodman offers this explanation:

Our interest is in getting animals out of labs. One way we do that is by making sure that people who violate guidelines are appropriately sanctioned. That can include retractions and having funding cut off. … That’s why we do pursue these cases and we are tenacious.

We reached Scott-Lichter by phone and asked her about the long delay between PETA’s initial contact and the retraction, but she declined to comment. Let’s just say we’re puzzled why it took some 14 months for AACR to bend here.

That becomes all the more curious when you consider that PETA had a much more prompt response from the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO) when it urged the association to retract two meeting abstracts submitted by another researcher, Gerardo L. Paez, sanctioned by ORI last July. According to the ORI report on the incident, Paez, a former post-doc at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine

committed research misconduct by falsifying/fabricating data for gene  expression profiles in retinal tissue from three-week old normal dogs and dogs  with X-linked progressive retinal atrophy in abstracts and poster presentations  for the 2006 and 2007 Association for Research in Vision and  Ophthalmology (ARVO) meetings and in an unsubmitted manuscript draft.

A PETA researcher, Jeremy Beckham, contacted ARVO in early August 2010 about the ORI inquiry into Paez:

As a result of that investigation, it was determined that Paez knowingly and intentionally fabricated data for gene expression profiles in retinal tissue from three-week old normal dogs and dogs with X-linked progressive retinal atrophy. The ORI determined that this fraudulent data was disseminated at your 2006 and 2007 annual meetings. Abstracts from those poster presentations are still publicly accessible on your organization’s website. I am confident that ARVO maintains high standards of academic ethics and would never intentionally publish the fruits of fraud.  We respectfully ask that you respond accordingly by immediately retracting these abstracts.

Beckham quickly received a reply from the group acknowledging his message. Days later, on Aug. 14, 2010, he received a follow-up e-mail from the association, the guts of which follow:

ARVO places a high emphasis on ethics in research and publishing. We decided to submit retractions for the two abstracts referenced in your e-mail. This is a multi-step process. Many organizations need to be notified. The following notices are available until more permanent production files are available. We will let you know when this process is complete.

In other words, it may not be pretty, but anyone who goes to look for those abstracts will learn they’ve been retracted while we work through production.

So it is possible for societies and journals to move quickly. As Ivan reported yesterday, JNCI retracted one of its articles within weeks of learning that it was statistically flawed.

But if—and this is purely speculation—AACR’s reluctance had anything to do with the messenger rather than the message, that’s unfortunate. Because although PETA might be something less than the loyal opposition, they nonetheless in this case were making a valid request.

Scott-Lichter might do well to read a 2006 article in Science on research fraud in which her predecessor, former AACR publisher Kathleen Case, is quoted about Luk van Parijs, an immunologist at MIT who was fired for allegedly faking his data. Here was Case’s take on the matter, according to Science:

One of the biggest problems in these fraud things [is that] the investigations get finished, the wrist-slapping [ensues]. And the last thing people think of is the journals.

When people do think of the journals and the journals decline to comment, it’s hard to muster much sympathy for their plight.

Related plug: Ivan will be on a panel on how journals editors can deter research fraud with Scott-Lichter at the Council of Science Editors meeting in Baltimore in May. Register here.

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