Exosome pioneer’s paper retracted after investigation finds “multiple” faked figures

JImmunolThe Journal of Immunology is retracting a 2006 article about the role of exosomes in pregnancy at the behest of the University of Louisville in Kentucky, following a misconduct investigation that “determined multiple figures” in the paper were falsified.

First author Douglas Taylor is a pioneer in exosome biology, having discovered the release of exosomes from tumor cells in the 1970s.

The retracted paper identified “significant quantitative and qualitative differences in released exosomes” in the placentas of fetuses delivered prematurely compared to those delivered without complications at term, particularly relating to immune regulation.  It has been cited 150 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

Here’s the retraction note (which is paywalled – tsk, tsk):

An institutional research misconduct investigation committee determined multiple figures in the following paper were falsified: “Pregnancy-Associated Exosomes and Their Modulation of T Cell Signaling” by Douglas D. Taylor, Sibel Akyol, and Cicek Gercel-Taylor, The Journal of Immunology, 2006, 176: 1534–1542.

Based on the foregoing, the University of Louisville has requested that the above paper be retracted.

Since his initial discovery of exosomes with tumor cells, Taylor and others have identified these vesicles in many different cell types. Recently, the possibility of harnessing exosomes for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes has caught the attention of the drug industry

Indeed, Taylor and his wife Cicek Gercel-Taylor, coauthor on the paper and also a heavyweight in the field, both left the University of Louisville in 2013 for Exosome Sciences, where Taylor is the Chief Scientific Officer and Gercel-Taylor is the Clinical Research Director. Here’s the company’s focus, according to its website:

The mission of Exosome Sciences is to create “liquid biopsies” that improve diagnoses and monitoring of acute and chronic conditions.

Taylor didn’t respond to our request for information on the circumstances surrounding the retraction.

Pamela Fink, the Journal of Immunology’s editor-in-chief, cited journal policy in declining to comment:

Thanks for the message and for writing a post about this retraction.  As I am sure you will understand, it is journal policy to communicate about such matters only with the Corresponding Author and with the involved institution.

The University of Louisville also didn’t add much in their statement:

The University of Louisville undertook a thorough review of specific issues identified with this research. We have forwarded our investigation report to the appropriate federal agency for its review. This retraction was requested as a result of the university’s review and findings.

University representatives declined to note whether the investigation identified any other fraudulent work.

Taylor and Gercel-Taylor corrected a 2008 paper about using exosomes to diagnose ovarian cancer, also due to figure issues. That paper, “MicroRNA signatures of tumor-derived exosomes as diagnostic biomarkers of ovarian cancer,” was cited 626 times and has earned the designation of “highly cited paper.” Here’s the correction note:

The original Fig. 2, Panel B presented representative portions derived from a larger ethidium bromide stained agarose gel, where the original gel image was cropped from a larger gel to indicate the areas of interest. Due to these modifications, the areas of interest became distorted and pixelated. We now present Panel B as the results from a single gel as an un-retouched image to clarify the presence of only low molecular weight RNA in the exosomal fractions of ovarian cancer patients.

A comment posted two years ago on the online community PubPeer has also raised questions about another figure in the 2008 paper, suggesting it resembles one published four years prior.

This isn’t the first misconduct investigation from University of Louisville we’ve covered — another one completed three years ago brought down seven papers by a researcher studying lung cancer.

Update, 6/11/15 10:15 am eastern:  Taylor wrote in with a statement that diverges from the university’s account.

I am contacting you regarding your posting detailing the retraction of my article from the Journal of Immunology. There are multiple issues that need to be addressed:
·      The retraction was requested by University of Louisville (UofL) as a result of “their determination” of research misconduct. This matter is still ongoing and no final determination has been made. The investigation is motivated by retaliation by UofL, who have intentionally generated unfounded allegations.
·         UofL conducted a biased investigation, identifying figures they claimed had been falsified or fabricated. While neither Dr. Gercel-Taylor nor I performed the studies or created the figures, as the senior member of the lab, I am responsible for addressing any issues. Thus, for all figures that were questioned, I provided actual data, demonstrating that graphs and charts accurately depicted the data.
·        University’s investigation was either focused on simple visual similarities in figures demonstrating lack of expertise (or intentional false conclusions) or their falsification of figures by modification to generate similarities, demonstrating their malicious intent. Thus, the requirement for “thorough, competent and objective” review was not performed and their manipulation of evidence raises serious questions about the validity of their findings.
These points were communicated to the editor of the Journal of Immunology on December 5, 2014, along with copies of the original data so that the editor could independently verify that no falsification or fabrication occurred and that retraction was unwarranted. Obviously, the journal instead was guided in the decision to retract the paper by UofL without checking the validity of the claims. Investigation of this matter is ongoing with detailed analyses of UofL’s motives and actions.


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3 thoughts on “Exosome pioneer’s paper retracted after investigation finds “multiple” faked figures”

  1. The opinion released by the Editor-in-Chief of the “Journal of Immunology” reads to me as a polite way of saying to the readers to take a hike!

    1. I think it goes back to the misconception among some in science publishing that a paper is a private business affair between the authors and the journal. The communication is one-sided, once the paper is published, others are to read what they are given and not ask questions.

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