Retraction appears for stem cell researcher found to have used funds for his company’s gain

Feuer_detail
Gerold Feuer in 2008, via Upstate

A stem cell journal is retracting a paper by Gerold Feuer, a researcher at the State University of New York (SUNY) Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse who was also found to have misused grants.

The Feuer story is complicated. Heralded in 2008 for landing $6.2 million in grants from the New York Stem Cell Board, Feuer was suspended in October 2010 while the university investigated allegations he had misused funds, specifically to funnel state dollars to HuMurine, a company he founded in 2008. In December 2010, Upstate said they had found evidence he had committed 53 acts of financial misconduct, and dismissed him.

From an August 2012 court ruling on a case Feuer brought to fight that dismissal:

In December 2010, Dr. Feuer was served with a Notice of Discipline charging him with fifty-three separate specifications of misconduct related to work he allegedly performed on behalf of or in furtherance of HuMurine’s interests while employed by SUNY Upstate and while using SUNY Upstate’s resources and/or personnel. SUNY Upstate also alleged that Dr. Feuer directed State employees to submit charges for services performed for HuMurine to be paid from a State grant.

Despite the fact that an arbitrator agreed with Upstate on 30 of the charges, Feuer won that case, and was reinstated:

By her August 20, 2012 Award, the Arbitrator determined (1) that SUNY Upstate did have just cause to immediately suspend Dr. Feuer pending resolution of the disciplinary charges; (2) that Dr. Feuer was guilty of thirty of the alleged acts of misconduct; (3) that Dr. Feuer was not guilty of the remaining alleged acts of misconduct; (4) that the penalty of termination was “not appropriate under the totality of circumstances”; and (5) that the appropriate penalty was suspension from the effective date of his termination to the date of the award.

That meant, the Syracuse Post-Standard reported in March, that

Upstate reinstated Feuer, a tenured professor of microbiology and immunology, Feb. 18 at an annual salary of $116,196 and placed him in an off-campus assignment.

Neither the university nor Feuer would tell the paper what that off-campus assignment was.

Meanwhile, Upstate tells Retraction Watch that a separate scientific misconduct inquiry was ongoing in parallel with the financial investigation. That inquiry wrapped up in April of this year, and found large amounts of misconduct. The university ultimately found three researchers guilty. Two of those were Feuer and Prabal Banerjee, now an employee at HuMurine. But Michelle Sieburg and Elizabeth Samuelson were among those found not to have done anything wrong.

Following the recommendation of the investigation committee, the university’s research integrity officer has requested retractions of three papers, the first of which appeared on October 4:

  • “Human T-cell lymphotrophic virus type 1 infection of CD34+ hematopoietic progenitor cells induces cell cycle arrest by modulation of p21cip1/waf1 and survivin,” published in the journal Stem Cells (Stem Cells 2008;26:3047-3058). (cited five times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge)
  • “Adult T-cell leukemia/lymphoma development in HTLV-1-infected humanized SCID mice,” published in the journal Blood (Blood 2010 April 1; 115(13): 2640-2648). (cited 16 times)
  • “Induction of cell cycle arrest by human T-cell lymphotropic virus type 1 tax in hematopoietic progenitor (CD34+) cells: modulation of p21cip1/waf1 and p27kip1 expression,” published in the Journal of Virology (J. Virol. 2005, 79 (22): 14069-14078). (cited 30 times)

Here’s the first of those notices, which ran in Stem Cells:

The following article in STEM CELLS, “Human T-cell Lymphotropic Virus Type 1 Infection of CD341 Hematopoietic Progenitor Cells Induces Cell Cycle Arrest by Modulation of p21cip1/waf1 and Survivin,” by Banerjee P, Sieburg M, Samuelson E, and Feuer G, first published online 25 September 2008 in Wiley Online Library (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1634/stemcells.2008-0353/abstract) and then in print Volume 26, Issue 12 3047–3058, December 2008, has been retracted by agreement between the Senior Editors of STEM CELLS, AlphaMed Press, and Wiley Periodicals, Inc. This retraction follows an investigation by the Research Misconduct Committee of the State University of New York (SUNY) Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, NY, and Senior Editors of STEM CELLS.

By a preponderance of the evidence, SUNY’s Investigation Committee concluded that data in Figures 2D, 2G, and 2I had been fabricated and/or falsified “by manipulating the same flow cytometry sample analysis to represent different cell treatment groups and time points”. By a preponderance of the evidence, the Investigation Committee further concluded that data in Figures 3 (E, F, G, and H) and Figures 5 (E, F, G, and H) had been fabricated and/or falsified “by using flow cytometry samples analyzed under different fluorescent channels to represent the same samples and analysis”. Lastly, by a preponderance of the evidence, the Investigation Committee concluded that data in Figures 3 (E and F), 4 (A and B) and 5 (F and G) had been fabricated and/or falsified “by duplicating flow cytometry control plots”.

Feuer, who hasn’t responded to our requests for comment, received NIH grants, and so the committee’s report has been forwarded to the Office of Research Integrity, Upstate tells us.

The case is the third we’ve written about at the university in the past few years. In 2012, the ORI found that Michael Miller, a former neuroscience researcher, had manipulated data in grant applications. And separately, a graduate student, Jennifer Jamieson, was found to have falsified data.

But as we’ve often said, it’s not the institutions that report misconduct that we’re worried about. Dave Amberg, Upstate’s research integrity officer, tells us:

For the amount of research expenditures at Upstate per year, based on national averages, we’d expect about one  case a year, and we certainly haven’t had that. To try and increase awareness and consciousness around this issue, we dedicated last year’s Dean’s Grand Rounds seminar series to research misconduct. Truth is we accumulated a couple of bad characters, and it took some pretty brave people to come forward and do the right thing.

Please see an update on this post, with a response from Gerold Feuer.

7 thoughts on “Retraction appears for stem cell researcher found to have used funds for his company’s gain”

  1. Three cases is not many and SUNY have/are rooting them out. it seems reasonable to consider SUNY to be a perfectly “normal” institution. Three is a small number, so we would expect some institutions to have zero or one and some to have perhaps more than 3.
    So what are the other institutions doing? Assiduously sweeping stuff under the carpet or digging deeply and carefully where they know there is nothing?

    Such investigations divert resource, human and cash, from teaching and research and they do not come cheap. So hats off to SUNY for taking these on the chin.

    1. And such investigations are poisonous to the working atmosphere. I was in a clinical research center some years ago in which the PI was accused of comingling research grant monies and treatment monies. There was a 9-month forensic accounting investigation to evaluate the degree to which this was the case. The PI was exonerated, but there were a number of odd things about the management of the center, including micromanagement of grants obtained by center investigators (so that investigators who obtained the grant were not in full control of grant funds, etc). The center was eventually dissolved, the PI relocated to another institution, and pretty much the entire faculty of the center is now dispersed. Due to the investigation? Probably somewhat. Certainly the PI lost support within the institution that originally housed the center.

  2. I don’t know what to think about this.

    The fact that the independent arbitrator reinstated Feuer calls into question the nature and competence of the university investigations.

    The fact that he was reinstated in spite of 30 financial violations suggests that the violations were trivial.

    I’d be grateful if someone familiar with flow cytometry experiments commented on the alleged scientific fraud.

    1. Just to follow up on myself (I love doing that…) here is a pertinent part of the court ruling on the arbitration:

      “it is apparent that before deciding that Dr. Feuer should be returned to work, the arbitrator considered certain mitigating factors, including that Dr. Feuer did not intend to profit personally from his conduct. Rather, the arbitrator concluded that Dr. Feuer believed that his work with the private entity would benefit the University and provide financial support for his work on behalf of the University. Further, the arbitrator noted that Dr. Feuer’s conduct was not clandestine and that the administration therefore either knew or should have known that he was engaging in the offensive conduct. The arbitrator also considered the administration’s delay in deciding whether Dr. Feuer’s work with the private entity conflicted with his position at SUNY Upstate, that Dr. Feuer “constantly and actively” sought guidance from SUNY administrators, that the administration initially supported his plans, that similar billing practices existed with another subcontract, and that once the administration determined a conflict existed with HuMurine, the determination was not immediately communicated to Dr. Feuer.”

      Maybe Feuer didn’t do anything wrong…

      1. This was a labor arbitration of a grievance brought by Dr. Feuer’s union. In that context, the default rule (absent something unusual in the union agreement), is that a termination will be upheld only on a very strong showing, an with an impeccable procedural record, and based either on (a) the violation of an extremely specific and well-enforced work rule or (b) after previous formal discipline for a similar offense. So, the arbitrator’s ruling doesn’t really tell us anything — either way — about the ethics or even the criminality of Dr. Feuer’s conduct.

        The court reviewing the arbitrator’s ruling has nearly the narrowest scope of review known to U.S. law. The court can reverse an arbitrator only for corruption or evident partiality, a gross undisclosed conflict of interest, or a clear violation of some well-established public policy. Reversals of an arbitrator’s ruling are rare, and have actually become rarer in the last 20 years or so. So, the court’s opinion doesn’t mean anything useful, either.

        New York law might differ from these standard labor law principles, but I doubt it varies much.

        I don’t often get to talk about my day job on this blog!

  3. “This was a labor arbitration of a grievance brought by Dr. Feuer’s union.”

    Yes, and it includes a finding-of-facts by the arbitrator. The facts include:

    a) He wasn’t personally profiting from the arrangement.
    b) He sought and obtained permission from the University.
    c) He “constantly and actively” sought guidance.
    d) None of his actions were hidden or secret.

    A non-lawyer might think there is reason to believe he is entirely innocent.

    1. I think there may be a grave misunderstanding here. All spin-outs should do the University good (usually for reputation only, certainly not moneterily) where they originated.

      However, when those spin-outs smell the gold after years of support from the University and want a bit of independence, and pay less, or nothing, to the University, then University authorities, rightly or wrongly, will no doubt protect their businesses.

      I have little doubt that many spinout company heads here in the UK use University funds for other than the purposes than which they were given. It is a way of life and usually a necessity if we wish businesses to survive.

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