Data fraud at Emory leads to retractions of three cardiology papers

An investigation by Emory University in Atlanta has led to the retractions of three articles containing falsified data, but the ambiguous wording of the notices leaves us wondering if they are implying more than they state.

Two of the papers appeared in the journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology. The notices in ATVB implicate a researcher named Lian Zuo, who worked in Emory’s division of cardiology.

Here’s one:

The Emory University Investigation Committee conducted an institutional investigation of fraudulent data published in Zuo et al. Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol. 2005:25;1824–1830 [the paper was titled ‘Caveolin-1 is Essential for Activation of Rac1 and NAD(P)H Oxidase after Angiotensin II Type 1 Receptor Stimulation in Vascular Smooth Muscle Cells: Role in Redox Signaling and Vascular Hypertrophy’]. Emory University Office of Research Compliance reported that the Emory University Investigation Committee found it more likely than not that Dr. Zou was responsible for the falsifications in Figures 1A 2nd panel, 2A, 2B 1st & 2nd panels, 3C, 4A- bottom panel, 4C top panel, 6B top panel.

In other words, the figures contained falsified data — that much is certain — but who was to blame is less clear. The paper has been cited 62 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

As the other notice states:

The Emory University Office of Research Compliance has requested that the following article be retracted from publication in Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology:

Zuo L, Ushio-Fukai M, Ikeda S, Hilenski L, Alexander RW. Microtubules Regulate Angiotensin II Type Receptor and Rac1 Localization in Caveolae/Lipid Rafts: Role in Redox Signaling. Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol. 2004:24;1223–1228. doi: 10.1161/01.ATV.0000132400.25045.2a

The Emory University Investigation Committee also conducted an institutional investigation of fraudulent data publishedin Zuo et al. Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol. 2004:24;1223–1228. Emory University Office of Research Compliance reported that the Emory University Investigation Committee was unable to attribute responsibility for the image manipulation to any specific individual. Figures found to be manipulated were: 1A, 1B bottom panels, 2B middle panel and 4A top panel.

That paper has been cited 23 times.

The third retraction, which preceded the AVTB notices, makes things a bit clearer. It indicates that Zuo admitted to university officials that he had fabricated data for an article titled “cAbl Tyrosine Kinase Mediates Reactive Oxygen Specie and Caveolin-Dependent AT1 Receptor Signaling in Vascular Smooth Muscle: Role in Vascular Hypertrophy.” That paper appeared in the journal Circulation Research in 2005, and has been cited 47 times.

As the notice, published online last year, states:

The Emory University Investigation Committee conducted an institutional investigation of fraudulent data published in Ushio-Fukai et al. Circ Res 2005;97:829–836. Emory University Office of Research Compliance reported that Dr. Lian Zuo admitted to the Emory University Investigation Committee to falsifying Figures 2A top panel, 3C top panel, 3C bottom panel, 4A top panel, 5B top panel right, 5B bottom panel left, and 5B bottom panel right. The Emory Investigation Committee reported it found evidence to conclude that the following figures were also falsified by Dr. Lian Zuo: 1A  top and lower panels, 3A top panel, 3A second  panel, 3A bottom panel, 3B bottom panel, 4C bottom panel, and 6A top and bottom panels. The Emory University Investigation Committee also reported it found Figures 2A bottom panel, 2B bottom panel, 3B top panel, 4B bottom panel, 4D bottom panel, 5A middle panel, and 6B bottom panel to be falsified, but the Committee was unable to determine who was responsible for the falsification.

The Office of Research Integrity has been involved with the Emory University Investigation Committee and has been made aware of the Committee’s findings.

(Involvement of ORI suggests that the research was conducted on the government’s buck. A search of the agency website found no mention of the case — not surprising, since officials are prevented by law from discussing them until they’re concluded.)

By our count, that’s 23 falsified panels in the Circulation Research paper, 16 of which the school linked conclusively to Zuo. Which, of course, raises the questions: If Zuo didn’t admit to fabricating data for the remaining seven, why not, and was someone else — or more than one someone — involved in the deception? And why couldn’t Emory investigators figure out what happened in the two other articles?

We have a call in to the editors of the two journals, as well as to Emory officials, and will update this post when we learn more. We’ve also reached out to some of Zuo’s co-authors but have yet to connect with them.

While we’re dealing in circumstances and connections, here’s another: The molecule Zuo and colleagues were studying, caveolin-1, might be familiar to readers of Retraction Watch. That’s because several months ago we reported on the retraction of an article by researchers at Emory’s same-state rival, the Medical College of Georgia, about the substance.

Since then, and despite substantial efforts, we’ve managed to learn very little about the MCG case. What we do know is that the first author of the paper, Neetu Sud, has left the university, and that Andrew Newton, the university attorney overseeing the case, seems to have no interest in speaking with us.

Update, 4:45 p.m. Eastern, 4/26/11: We spoke with Kristin West, who directs Emory’s research compliance
unit, but learned little. West told us she could not discuss the details of the case because “there are still some ongoing matters concerning some of the issues.”

West cited ORI’s “very strict rules about confidentiality” for her mum-itude, but acknowledged that government funding had been involved in the fraudulent research.

Hat tip: Susana Marinho.

0 thoughts on “Data fraud at Emory leads to retractions of three cardiology papers”

  1. The corresponding author of these papers is the chair of medicine at Emory which may explain why its extra difficult to get to the bottom of who else may have been involved in this misconduct.

  2. It’s messed up that you can go to the Circulation Research paper and have no idea that a retraction request has been issued.


        He’s the Chair of Internal Medicine so I doubt he’s doing much clinical cardiology other than the minimum necessary to maintain his medical license and justify an enormous salary.

        Your point about busy people with administrative and clinical responsibilities not paying attention to what goes on in their lab is well taken.

        And while I have absolutely no reason to think that Dr Alexander was in any way involved directly in this misconduct its easy to see how someone with limited time to devote to his lab could invoke a plausible deniability defense when something like this happens.

  3. Lian Zuo is apparently a serial falsifier and this should have been picked up by someone in the lab. Perhaps the individual whose job it is to actually supervise the research? Isn’t this part of the PI’s job description? Of course it is unlikely that the official repercussions will travel any further than Zuo.

  4. It looks like we can’t trust the other research data released by corresponding author of these papers anymore

  5. It appears that the retracted papers fit into a pattern seen with “serial falsifiers”: deliver multiple papers on obscure subjects that generate little interest in the scientific community but are still counted in your total of “papers written.”
    Much easier to falsify data on subjects that people aren’t interested in or don’t understand. What is caveolin-1?
    This Lian Zuo sounds like a “serial falsifier” on a career trying to fly below the radar. He may have been getting a lot of help in the form of being ignored by Wayne Alexander who was too busy cashing and spending his “enormous paychecks” to actually supervise his staff. Sounds like a lot of “cardiologists” I used to run into when trying to get something done for my patients with angina who didn’t have social connections.

    1. The importance of these retractions is setting back science is precisely because cAbl (and perhaps caveolin-1) are at the heart of how angiotensin II activates NAD(P)H oxidase, a pathway that can be targeted in hypertension, atherosclerosis, type II diabetes, etc.

  6. Darn it all to heck! No wonder I’m retired. I wrote that comment in a fit of pique from which I still haven’t recovered. “My patients with angina who didn’t have social connections”?? No wonder I can’t get a reference from anybody.

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