Blood retracts two, including a disputed paper from the Karolinska Institute

The journal Blood has two retractions this month, one of which seems particularly interesting. So let’s deal with the other one first.

The paper, “MicroRNAs 15a/16-1 function as tumor suppressor genes in multiple myeloma,” appeared online in October 2010. But according to the retraction notice, the authors

have recently discovered that the cell lines used in their paper were inadvertently misidentified. The cell lines utilized in the paper have now been found to contain the bcr/abl translocation and most likely represent the K562 CML cell line, instead of MMS1 and RPM1 myeloma cell lines. Due to this issue, the relevance of the findings to myeloma and thus, the conclusions of the paper, are not supported by the data. The authors apologize to the readers, reviewers, and editors of Blood for publishing these erroneous data.

That seems straightforward enough, and we couldn’t find any evidence that this problem affected other publications.

The second paper, however, could be more significant. The 2005 article, “Only a specific subset of human peripheral-blood monocytes has endothelial-like functional capacity,” was written by researchers affiliated with the Karolinska Institute (or Institutet, if you drive a Saab). It has been cited 61 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

The research purported to show that the protein VEGFR-2

on peripheral blood monocytes is essential for their endothelial-like functional capacity and support the notion of a common precursor for monocytic and endothelial cell lineage. Our results help clarify which subpopulations may restore damaged endothelium and may participate in the maintenance of vascular homeostasis.

Except that they don’t.

According to the retraction notice,

An investigation performed by the Swedish Research Council has concluded that the results as published cannot be considered reliable.

Three of the authors, Elzafir Elsheikh, Mehmet Uzunel and Grzegorz Nowak, signed the notice. Three others —  Zhong He, Jan Holgersson, and Suchitra Sumitran-Holgersson — did not.

We have attempted to contact several of the researchers involved in this paper. An email to Sumitran-Holgersson (who is married to Jan Holgersson), bounced back. Jan Holgersson, a clinical immunologist, appears to be the most prominent figure in the bunch, directing a lab focusing on ways to improve the survival of organ transplants.

In our limited experience, the combination of a university investigation and a non-unanimous retraction letter point to serious problems in lab. But we’ve never before seen an instance in which the split was 50/50.

Lennart Hammarström, head of the division of clinical immunology at KI, told us that

it was convincingly shown that some of the data in the article might have been fabricated.

Sumitran-Holgersson has left KI at is now at the University of Gothenburg, Hammarström said, although he added that the investigation was not the main factor in her leaving.

Life at the KI is tough – you do not get anything for free.

The institute is investigating her other research for evidence of fraud, he said.

We tried to reach Cynthia Dunbar, the editor of Blood, and will update this post if we do.

Update 4:40 pm, May 6:

We’ve heard from Dunbar, who said her journal was contacted last year by officials at KI and the Swedish Research Council alerting it to an investigation.

They contacted us initially to say [the work] was under investigation but without details and then with their final report, which was extensive and convinced us to follow their recommendations to retract the paper with the consent of all the authors besides the three dissenters. I also had a number of direct conversations with committee members.

Dunbar said at least one, and possibly two, of the dissenters never answered her “multiple” attempts to contact them.

The senior author [Jan Holgresson] disagreed with the conclusions of the investigation.

None of the accused authors has published before in Blood, Dunbar noted. The first author, Elsheikh, appeared on one paper as a “middle author,” she added, but that research has not been questioned.

12 thoughts on “Blood retracts two, including a disputed paper from the Karolinska Institute”

  1. Uhm…

    “it was ONCVINCINGLY shown that some of the data in the article MIGHT HAVE BEEN fabricated”
    (emphasis mine)

    Sounds like a contradiction to me!

  2. The full report of the investigation by the Swedish Research Council is available online:

    Unfortunately, it’s only available in Swedish.

    What they found, among other things, were flow cytometry scattergrams that had been digitally manipulated to change the axis labels, and presented as showing analyses of other markers than those actually assayed. There were also numerous other irregularities and instances of data that could not be verified from original documentation.

  3. By the way, I should disclose that I too work at the Karolinska Institutet (although I do not drive a SAAB). 🙂

  4. Perhaps what was “convincing” was that the data was “unconvincing” and therefore “might have been” fabricated. It might also have been pulled out of a hat.

  5. Amazing, how it is always people working at KI that have always responded to the allegations towards Holgerssons. Has anybody tried to find out the whole truth in this matter? A one-sided report regarding the accusations is posted on the internet. Why has the response to the allegations not been posted?

    Also interesting is the fact that all three dissenters no longer work at KI, while all the KI employees have agreed to sign the retraction form.
    What is KI really trying to cover-up. From earlier reports it is pretty clear that all people that the vice-chancellor of Ki does not like, they are always accused of something.

    Time to find out the real truth about this case.

    1. Do you think there is some kind of conspiracy by KI, to get rid of unwanted researchers?

      Did it occur to you that the people that still work at KI might be the one the journal could actually track down and get an answer from? The rest are either Holgerssons, or not available (just one, btw).

      The real truth is that the responsible scientist tried to mislead the group that was investigating the issue…

      1. Once again, it is a person from KI/closely connected to KI that has posted this comment. Why this strong emotional protest from the expert group? Is it because the new commission that the Swedish research council is going to appoint will investigate all the serious flaws committed by the expert group? Finally the truth will be brought to light.

        For your kind information one of the members of the expert group Birgitta Strandvik has been accused for research fraud and found guilty, but it was all hushed up!! Such is the justice system in swedish research. People already accused of scientific fraud get to legally judge others of scientific misconduct.

        What the chief of the swedish resaerch council has done is absolutely justified. He has the guts to stand up against a corrupt committe of members (the expert group) and is not afraid to accept the fact that the expert group has made numerous mistakes, including racistic remarks in this case. The expert group ought to be ashamed of themselves for wrongly accusing an innocent person. Well, soon many new facts (with proper and reliable evidence) regarding the role of the members of the expert group will be brought to light. Finally the truth will be revealed.

  6. Göteborgs-Posten (Gothenburg newspaper) reporting on research scandal.

    SU granskar efter forskningsskandal=SU examines the research scandal

    SU(Sahlgrenska universitetssjukhuset=Sahlgrenska university hospital).

    Det har gått snett någonstans i Sverige och därför vill vi ha en genomgång för att se om vi gör rätt grejer, säger Olle Larkö, dekanus på Sahlgrenska akademin

    It has gone wrong somewhere in Sweden and therefore we want to have a review to see if we are doing the right stuff, says Olle Larkö, Dean of the Sahlgrenska Academy

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