Oncogene to retract breast cancer paper following years-old misconduct investigation

Oncogene is retracting a 2010 paper on the molecular details of breast cancer cells as they undergo metastasis following an investigation that discovered the first author had committed misconduct.

The thing is, the investigation concluded in 2012, and the paper — “miR-661 expression in SNAI1-induced epithelial to mesenchymal transition contributes to breast cancer cell invasion by targeting Nectin-1 and StarD10 messengers” — isn’t being retracted until next week.

According to Lucinda Haines, senior publishing manager at Nature Publishing Group, the paper will be retracted June 29.

We heard from Iris Behrmann, Head of the Life Sciences Research Unit at the University of Luxembourg:

Here is the statement of the University of Luxembourg on the pending retraction: The article from Oncogene (Vetter et al.), published on June 14, 2010, in NPG, has been retracted in agreement between the University of Luxembourg, the journal Editor-in-Chief and NPG. In autumn 2011 it was discovered that the first author had falsified data. The matter was brought to the UL-internal Ethics Review Panel which is in charge of treating cases of suspected scientific fraud. It became subject of investigation by an external evaluation committee invited by the University of Luxembourg. The external committee acknowledged that the manipulations were carried out without involvement of any of the co-authors. The committee recommended on June 2, 2012, that this article has to be retracted or corrected. According to the committee’s recommendations, the corresponding author contacted the Oncogene editor in view of a potential correction of the paper, removing the manipulated data and adding newly produced data. However, before submitting a revised version, the corresponding author became ill in June 2013 and left the University in July 2014. The first author, who was found to be the sole responsible for the misconduct, left the University of Luxembourg in March 2012. The UL as institution requested retraction of this publication in October 2014 and regrets any inconvenience caused.

In searching for first author Guillaume Vetter, we found someone by that name on LinkedIn, who apparently works at CRP-Sante, the Luxembourg Institute of Health. (We have emailed him through LinkedIn to confirm his identity and request a statement.)

In a subsequent email, Behrmann sent us a copy of the report from the investigation, minus the names of key participants. She explained this omission in her email:

We are not allowed to disclose the names of the panel members for obvious reasons but can assure you that they were 3 international scientists of the highest standing, all external to the University of Luxembourg and, importantly, from 3 different countries. Likewise, we cannot disclose data and information protected by the appropriate laws and regulations. However, the version we send you contains all information of immediate relevance to the case. Subsequently, we followed all recommendations in detail.

The report, which you can read in full here, presents these conclusions:

The paperwork and the interviews leave very little if any doubt that the manipulation of the data, in particular the nectin data, was done by Dr Vetter without the involvement of others. In fact he avoided answering a number of critical questions about the data from his collaborators.

The laboratory is to be commended for its efforts to get to the bottom of this issue by repeating experiments and collecting new data. This shows that the basic conclusion of the paper stands with the exception of the nectin data. In particular it is recommended that Figure 4 should be checked, Figure 5a (nectin data) should be changed, that Figure 5b should be modified and the experiment reported in Figure 5c be repeated. All nectin data should be dropped. There was no evidence of data manipulation in other publications.

The report, dated April 26, 2012, also states:

The article published in Oncogene has to be retracted or corrected.

The report also exonerates the other co-authors:

No action should be taken against any of the co-authors, in fact they should be commended for their diligence to rectify the situation.

Last author Evelyne Friederich told us she alerted the journal to the data issues in 2011:

Initially, in 2011, I contacted Oncogene to request the retraction of the publication by Vetter et al. 2010 because I got aware that raw qRT-PCR values of data presented in Figure 3D (nectin) have been intentionally changed.  Then, I was asked to hold on the retraction till the out-come of the investigation by an external panel of experts, on behalf of University of Luxembourg. External experts advised retracting or correcting the article. Co-authors agreed on a correction. At that time I was confident that the correction would be limited in scale. But after, we got aware of additional manipulations, notably of data shown in figure 5A (nectin) and in panel C. Verification of data was slowed-down by the fact that the first author was not supportive of this process….A consensus was not reached when I was obliged stopping to work because of illness. Recently, it was brought to my attention that the publication was still online, despite the institutional retraction request of University of Luxembourg, in 2014. To bring this case to an end, I contacted Oncogene to request again a retraction. Retrospectively, I regret not having retracted the publication when I got aware of data manipulation in September 2011.

Behrmann confirmed to us that Friederich’s illness, unfortunately, delayed the process:

The delay was due to the protracted illness of the senior author. Over a year, it was not possible to contact her and hence no decision with regard to resubmission of an amended version or retraction of the paper could be taken. The internal process within the editorial board of Oncogene and ‘Nature Publishing Group’ to define the legally correct process for the institutional retraction in this unusual case took another few months.

Leonid Schneider has presented details about the paper in a story for Lab Times, and obtained documents that appear related to the retraction, which he made available on figshare.

The Lab Times article presents some backstory — namely, second-to-last author Charles-Henri Lecellier, based at the Institut de génétique moléculaire de Montpellier CNRS, used to be a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Olivier Voinnet. Voinnet is a high-profile plant biologist whose work — including papers co-authored by Lecellier, according to the Lab Times article — has fallen under scrutiny.

We’ve contacted Lecellier, CNRS, and Oncogene’s editor, Douglas Green, for comment.

The Oncogene paper has been cited 56 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

Hat tip: Leonid Schneider

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6 thoughts on “Oncogene to retract breast cancer paper following years-old misconduct investigation”

  1. Friedrich states: “because I got aware that raw qRT-PCR values of data presented in Figure 3D (nectin) have been intentionally changed.” How did Dr. Friedrich become aware, or did someone alert her? It is interesting how none of the remaining 11 authors, excluding Vetter, detected anything strange when the paper was submitted to Oncogene.

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