New retraction sheds light on Medical College of Georgia vascular biology case

In late January, we wrote a post about a retraction in the journal Molecular Endocrinology involving work from the lab of Stephen M. Black, of the Vascular Biology Center at at the Medical College of Georgia.

At the time, we didn’t know much. The notice was pretty thin sauce, although it hinted at “significant concerns with the data,” and we were led to believe that the first author of the article, Neetu Sud, a post-doc in Black’s lab, might have been implicated in those concerns. Because Black’s lab was working with substantial amounts of NIH funding, the prospect of an investigation by the Office of Research Integrity seemed likely.

Now we have a little more to go on. The American Journal of Physiology: Lung Cellular and Molecular Physiology has retracted another article by Sud and Black. The paper, titled “Protein kinase Cδ regulates endothelial nitric oxide synthase expression via Akt activation and nitric oxide generation,” appeared in 2008 and included a third author, Stephen Wedgwood, of Northwestern University. It has been cited 10 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

Here’s the notice:

Drs. Black and Wedgwood retract this article for the following reasons: The PKCδ image in Fig. 1C has been reused in Fig. 2C but labeled as β-actin. In the representative images for Figs. 2A and 4A, the same β-actin blots have been used for two different experiments an acute, 30-min treatment with Rottlerin in Fig. 2A and a chronic, 24-h exposure in Fig. 4A. The same image was presented in Fig. 3A β-actin, Fig. 3B PKCδ, and Fig. 4C β-actin.

Although independent experiments have confirmed the major conclusions of the misrepresented data, Drs. Black and Wedgwood agree to the retraction of this article and apologize to the Editorial Board and readership of AJP-Lung Cellular and Molecular Physiology for these errors.

Dr. Sud has declined to sign this retraction as she maintains that the original data and conclusions are correct.

We were unable to reach Black to comment. But we did speak with Wedgwood, a fellow Scot (the two trained at Edinburgh University in the 1990s but met in the States), who told us that he hadn’t spoken with Black about the retraction:

My personal views are … I think it was probably a very stupid mistake rather than a blatant attempt to falsify data. Most [of the issues involved] a control experiment that really shouldn’t go wrong.

Sud, who has left the college, does not seem to be reachable.

Hat tip: “Clare Francis”

0 thoughts on “New retraction sheds light on Medical College of Georgia vascular biology case”

  1. So the major conclusions of the misrepresented data were confirmed. Then why the retraction if these misrepresentations did not alter conclusions! Seems as though it is akin to shooting oneself in the foot.

    It also appears that these submissions depend upon the truthfulness of the authors.

    Is the scientific community a den of iniquity of which we are just coming to know?

    1. If it is a den of iniquity as I’m taking your “yes’ to mean, then what can be done to clean it up? It seems as though the competition is for a very limited pie of funds which by itself encourages, or could, duplicity.

  2. So I think that leaves only the following…

    Reuse of phospho-threonine and catalase blots in Fig 9A and 9D in Kumar et al., Am J Physiol Lung Cell Mol Physiol 298:L105, 2010

    Reuse of actin blots in Fig 2B and 7A in Sud and Black, DNA Cell Biol 28:543, 2009

    Reuse of eNOS and HSP90 blots of Fig 4A in Sud et al., Am J Physiol Lung Cell Mol Physiol 293:L1444, 2007

  3. Leaving aside the den of iniquity debate, what do people feel about people using retraction notices to report that actually the conclusions are fine, because they ran more experiments?

    I think if they did so, they ought to publish the new data properly & get it peer reviewed. Not report it in the form of a note. Because why the hell should we believe them, if they’ve just admitted to fraud or error?

    It seems like someone who’d stolen your wallet handing it back to you and saying “Sorry, I won’t steal from you again, now if you excuse me I’d like to take a look in your wallet.”

    1. Many papers aren’t even retracted, for this same reason. Which is a carte blanche for fraud. It’s saying that you can falsify what you want, but then if you get caught, as long as you can subsequently prove what the original data never did, it’s all OK.

      See Science 7 December 2007: Vol. 318 no. 5856 p. 1550 for a canonical, cited 700+ times, example.

    2. In my view if a paper is retracted then you should not be allowed to make any statements regarding whether or not the conclusions are the same or if the data has been “replicated” etc etc. It’s irrelevant (since the paper is being retracted) and just adds to the confusion.

      What worries me is that there is this horrible trend of Western blot fraud. It bothers me because I use the technique a lot and have published many papers with WB data. Many people have completely lost trust in the method now, which is a real shame because it is a brilliant tool that has been around for decades.

      What is the solution to this? Perhaps the WB film companies can put some kind of “water mark” or digital fingerprint into each film so that blots cannot be re-used.

      1. As a fellow WB user I fully sympathise. However I do not think this is a practical solution (possibly it will add more cost). I think an easier solution would be to include all the original films (uncropped and unedited) as a supplement. Nat Cell Biol does that and it should be universally implemented.

      2. What good would this do? If someone wants to be fraudulent they could simply use a different antibody (or protein sample) than they report they are using. The ways that fraud could be perpetrated are countless, some degree of trust is absolutely required but is validated when experiments are repeated or built upon and proven true (or false).

  4. It does seem kind of hopeless. Trust is essential but unfortunately is degraded every time one of these stories emerges. Short of someone observing the experiments, there is no obvious solution.

    From what I observe in the lab these days, particularly in the latest generation of grad students and post-docs, GROSS experimental negligence will be a much bigger problem going forward and is even harder to detect. The more techniques that become available, and the more sophisticated and delicate they become, the worse it will get.

    1. I tend to agree here. In my field of neuroscience, every year sees exciting new experimental methods being invented, most of which are genuinely powerful and interesting but they get adopted by “coal face” researchers (as opposed to methods experts) extremely quickly in the search for new publications.

      And of course it is generally the junior coal face researchers who end up using them.

      So you have techniques invented by expert mathematicians, physicists or biologists over the space of years, which then end up being used by junior neuroscientists with little or no training or supervision from the experts in most cases.

  5. As to solutions, and even whether the problem is soluble, I suggest some general principles:
    1. Beyond any increased supervision, it would be better to reduce the pressure on researchers that causes the urge to falsify publications.
    2. Education in undergraduate schools before research begins, into ethics in general and specifically research ethics.
    3. Science will progress more slowly because of fraud, but nonetheless it will eventually progress.

    1. I agree with all of these and I think (1) is the most important and will be the most effective. I think this will also lead to much higher quality research in general. However, what we seem to forget is that research is very ego driven and I feel that many PIs are driven by their own need for fame/recognition in the community, rather than their need for grant money. When you look at many of these fraud cases, they are rarely committed by junior faculty members or post-docs alone. Arguably, these are the guys that you would expect to be driven by a simple will to survive the research game.

  6. @Conrad: Yes, it is good to teach ethics in the beginning of one’s career. unfortunately, we need to find people who are clean enough to be role models. As we can see from retraction watch and abnormal science, misconduct/irregularities can be seen in publications from people at the highest level..

    1. You wonder if the high level people who commit fraud were rotten from the start or just recently began to cheat. Possibly were driven to cheating by experimental failures, loss of vision, pressure from…
      I happened to have an ethics class as an UG (junior); found it very helpful if still causing disillusionment at times. Maybe Aristotle (or whoever) should be mandatory to majors in biology and pre-med.

      1. Having had ethics at St.Michael’s College in VT many, many years ago, I was lucky enough to have a professor who made it real and demonstrated how an ethical life can be rewarding.

        I am still disillusioned when I run into situations that although they are not illegal, come off as unethical.

        There are only so many Nobels, Pritzkers, or Templetons to go around. If one achieves other recognition based upon questionable work, is there no shame? Perhaps we have a generation of conscience-less practitioners. If so, I have no answers.

        The comparing of one’s worth based upon that of colleagues, friends, etc is sad indeed. This is an intra-psyche problem for which rules, regulations and the like are ineffective.

    2. Is the fault with these practitioners or with their inability to maintain integrity in the face of overwhelming (at least to them) pressure to be the “best” regardless of the means.

      I recall my ethics professor drilling us that ends do not justify means. Apparently this principle has been turned on its head!

      1. Somehow people are able to convince themselves that what they are doing is not wrong. The simplest test is the mirror test. If you saw someone else do this, would you agree it is OK? If you cannot answer yes, you are in trouble.

    1. Ok, Dr. Sklyar, I realise you feel you have been wronged. However, spamming this blog isn’t exactly making me more open to listening to you. Quite the contrary, even. Take it to the appropriate authorities (or even higher up, like the Italian Ministery of Education, Universities and Research). Northwestern has an Office of Research you could contact.

      1. Thanks, dear Marco. I have just informed “Ministero dell’Istruzione, dell’Università e della Ricerca” about their busters! In such a case, it appears that my post does not dead spam, am I right? As about Northwestern’s Office of Research Misconduct, it is completely corrupted.

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