To one reader of a paper on a nerve cancer, the researchers, based at a hospital in China, seemed to have found a very large number of cases of a rare cancer to study. That observation triggered an investigation into the paper that led to its retraction — and the concern that the authors in the paper never did the research at all.
The authors say they recruited 156 patients who had a particular kind of cancer that affects the tissue around nerves, known as malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumors. For context on how rare that is: Other researchers found a mere 1,182 new cases over a nearly four-decade period in the U.S. The study, according to the methods section of the paper, was supposedly done with patients who had a specific type of the disease, and who were
consecutively recruited from Wuhan Union Hospital, Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan (Hubei, China) between July 2000 and November 2012
According to the retraction note for “Common genetic variants in the microRNA biogenesis pathway are associated with malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumor risk in a Chinese population,” the hospital where the work was done never treated all of those patients:
This paper has been retracted at the request of the Editor-in-Chief.
The Editors of Cancer Epidemiology were recently contacted by a reader who stated that the number of cases of malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumour (MPNST) reported in the paper referenced above was unfeasibly high and, furthermore, that the reader had evidence that the data reported in the paper was not true. The Editors contacted the authors for an explanation. The Editors of Cancer Epidemiology then received a communication from the Chief of the Department of Hand Surgery at Wuhan Union Hospital, the institution where the authors stated that the research took place, who confirmed that the hospital had not treated the number of patients reported in the paper and that there was no evidence that the research on MPNST was conducted at all.
The authors of the paper have not responded to the Editors.
A spokesperson for Elsevier, which publishes the journal, told us:
[T]he retraction notice itself is all the Journal feels it should say about the matter. Thank you.
The authors have another paper that includes part of the same group of potentially imaginary patients, “Identification of serum microRNAs in genome-wide serum microRNA expression profiles as novel noninvasive biomarkers for malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumor diagnosis,” published in Medical Oncology.
We asked the editor in chief of Medical Oncology, Kenneth Pienta, if the journal was taking a second look at that paper. He told us:
This is on our radar and is the subject of an ongoing investigation.
We tried to reach the corresponding author Yuxiong Weng, but an email to the address listed on the paper bounced back. We were unable to reach the Chief of the Department of Hand Surgery at Wuhan Union Hospital.
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