The Journal of Experimental Medicine has retracted a 2011 article after the principal investigator’s home institution suggested that the PI might have manipulated his data. Complicating matters, the PI in this case died two weeks after the paper appeared and his notes have gone missing — making an affirmative declaration of fraud or honest error difficult.
Here’s the notice:
At the request of the Dean for Research, Mayo Clinic Arizona, the paper “Foxp3-positive macrophages display immunosuppressive properties and promote tumor growth” by Zorro-Manrique, et al. is now retracted. The Dean states:
“We have recently received requests from readers to clarify the methodology and results in the paper presented by Zorro Manrique and colleagues. Regrettably, the senior investigator, Dr. Joseph Lustgarten, has passed away, and we do not have reliable access to his full methodology and data to substantiate the paper’s claims. In our ongoing efforts to respond to reader requests, concerns have arisen that individual methods, controls, labels, and data magnitude may be inaccurately portrayed in the paper. Although the surviving authors maintain a strong conviction that the paper’s substance, and the underlying science of regulatory macrophages, are valid, we request the retraction of this manuscript for the reasons stated above.
The reagents provided by co-authors outside of the Mayo Clinic are not implicated in these concerns.
No finding of research misconduct was made concerning the contributions of the surviving authors.”
The study has been cited twice, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.
The case is broadly reminiscent of one we covered earlier this year involving a researcher at Mount Sinai in New York who died about a month before four of her papers were retracted by the Journal of Biological Chemistry over concerns about misconduct. And there was the case of Julio Cruz, described in the BMJ several years ago (thanks to Charlie Briar for reminding us of it):
Cruz, a previously highly regarded medical researcher and clinician, committed suicide two years ago. Three of his publications about the use of high dose mannitol in head injury have recently been called into question. Furthermore, his coauthors and the editors of the journals in which the three papers were first published have failed to respond adequately to concerns raised about the integrity of the data in these papers.
The dean of research at Mayo Scottsdale is Keith Stewart. We wanted to know why a retraction was necessary, considering that the remaining authors stand by the results — at least, writ large.
Stewart told us that “two or three” labs familiar with Lustgarten’s work raised concerns about the paper shortly after it was published, but Lustgarten died June 30, of gastric cancer, at age 48. Using the records available — precisely what was around seems to be fuzzy — the clinic found inaccuracies in Lustgarten’s work.
There was enough concern in the review of that data to lead us to request a retraction of the paper. It’s hard to be absolutely sure. …
Dominique Hoelzinger, Lustgarten’s Mayo colleague and a co-author of the JEM paper, provided a little more detail:
The people who were writing us were trying to reproduce the isolation of these cells. They found out that certain controls were not executed; when one does execute them, it’s hard to replicate the level of cell [activity reported in the paper.
According to Hoelzinger, however:
We don’t have any of his notes because they were mistakenly disposed of right after he passed away
The last line of the retraction notice certainly implies that Mayo suspected Lustgarten of misconduct, but neither Stewart nor Hoelzinger would go that far. Hoelzinger told us:
It’s so hard to say this sort of thing about a person who cannot stand up and defend himself. This has been a extremely difficult situation. … It has been a very sad time for us.
Hoelzinger and Lustgarten also collaborated on a 2011 article in Cancer Immunology, Immunotherapy, the results of which have not been questioned. Meanwhile, she said, she and her co-authors from the JEM paper continue to work in the area they studied.
This is still a viable project.
Meanwhile, the Mayo investigation is ongoing, as investigators try to figure out if any misconduct involved government funding. Lustgarten had received “three or four” NIH grants, Stewart said, “two or three” of which have been cleared of any wrongdoing.