Case closed? Fired Pfizer researcher slated for seven retractions

Pfizer has discovered two additional papers that merit retraction from the lab of a former employee. One of the papers, published in Clinical Cancer Research, was retracted earlier this month.

Last year, Pfizer requested retractions of five papers from the lab of breast cancer researcher Min-Jean Yin, who was fired after an investigation revealed image duplication. The papers were first questioned on PubPeer. By April 2017, all five papers had been retracted.

After the initial probe, the pharmaceutical giant conducted a follow-up review of papers originating from Yin’s lab (which Leonid Schneider posted about on May 23). A spokesperson for the company told us that the review revealed two more articles that merited retraction “in light of data integrity issues relating to the figures therein.” The 2013 paper in Clinical Cancer Research was retracted earlier this month at Pfizer’s request. On May 1, 2017, Pfizer asked PLOS ONE to retract 2013 paper.

Pfizer also uncovered a 2011 paper in Molecular Cancer Therapeutics that the company believes warrants a correction, and the spokesperson says it will be contacting the journal shortly.

Here’s the retraction notice for “Targeting Small Cell Lung Cancer Harboring PIK3CA Mutation with a Selective Oral PI3K Inhibitor PF-4989216, published in Clinical Cancer Research:”

In early 2017, a representative from Pfizer contacted the CCR editorial office to request a retraction of the above-mentioned article. According to the representative, “Pfizer has discovered that several western blot images displayed in the publication appear to be duplicates of other images. In certain cases, we confirmed that a suspected duplicate image did not match in any way the original, authentic image found in laboratory records. In other cases, the original image appears to be derived from a separate experiment that was not displayed in the publication but that we identified in laboratory files. On the basis of the initial problems we identified, we undertook a more extensive review of the data and found more problems: specifically, publication images that had been mislabeled (i.e., 1-hour data from an original experiment being represented as 2-hour data in the publication); and publication images for which we could not locate any original images in the laboratory records. As a result of this review, Pfizer believes the article should be retracted.”  The matter was reviewed by members of the AACR Publications staff and CCR editors, who agree with Pfizer’s assessment. A copy of this retraction notice was sent to the last known email addresses for all 11 authors. Seven authors (Sangita M. Baxi, Kevin K.-C. Liu, Heather Estrella, Michael Zientek, Qing Zong, Tod Smeal, and Min-Jean Yin) consented to the retraction; the remaining four authors (Marlena Walls, Pramod P. Mehta, JinJiang Zhu, and Chunze Li) did not respond.

The paper has been cited nine times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.

Regarding the PLOS ONE paper “miR-122 Regulates Tumorigenesis in Hepatocellular Carcinoma by Targeting AKT3,” the spokesperson said Pfizer found “a duplicate image in Figure 4A.” A spokesperson for the journal told us “PLOS is aware of this case and are following up per our process and expect a resolution soon.” This paper has been cited 34 times. [see update]

Regarding the Molecular Cancer Therapeutics paper, “PF-04691502, a Potent and Selective Oral Inhibitor of PI3K and mTOR Kinases with Antitumor Activity,” Pfizer’s spokesperson explained:

Pfizer found that Figure 6C in the Molecular Cancer Therapeutics article does not accurately represent the underlying data for that experiment.  Based on this finding, Pfizer commissioned a review of the entire article and has concluded that all data in the paper, apart from Figure 6C, are accurate and that the unsupported result depicted in Figure 6C does not materially affect the findings of the paper.  Therefore, a letter is being sent out imminently to Molecular Cancer Therapeutics requesting that the journal remove Figure 6C and modify the corresponding Figure 6 caption and single line of text in the manuscript that references Figure 6C, through the issuance of a correction.

The spokesperson added:

Our proactive review has now concluded, and Pfizer believes that all material problems appearing in published articles that originated in the laboratory in question have been identified, with appropriate corrective actions being taken.

We do not have current contact details for Yin. Yin’s LinkedIn profile previously listed her at the biotech startup Diagnologix, but the link is no longer active. We also contacted the first author on the Clinical Cancer Research paper, Marlena Walls, who is now based at Regulus Therapeutics in San Diego, but have not heard back.

Update, 0200 UTC, 9/10/17: The PLOS ONE paper has been retracted:

A Pfizer representative contacted the editorial office to raise concerns that there are image duplications in this article. Pfizer has undertaken a review and determined that there are duplications in Fig 4A of the article and that part of the experiments cannot be verified.

In light of the concerns identified, the authors and the PLOS ONE Editors retract this article. We did not receive any comments from Min-Jean Yin, Rounak Nassirpour or Pramod Mehta.

Hat tip: Rolf Degen

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