Addressed to the editorial office at the American Association of Cancer Research (AACR), the letter, parts of which have been published in a retraction notice, contained information concerning two papers on genetic risk factors for a type of kidney cancer and a type of uterine cancer, respectively, published in different AACR journals over a decade ago by researchers affiliated with the institutions.
The papers had been at the center of research misconduct investigations at both UCSF and the VA and the investigations came to the conclusion that both papers contained:
fabrication or falsification of data that constitutes Research Misconduct.
Though one of the papers has been retracted, it’s unclear what will happen to the other. [Note: See update at the bottom of the post.]“Polymorphisms of the CYP1B1 Gene as Risk Factors for Human Renal Cell Cancer,” published in 2004 in Clinical Cancer Research, was retracted on Sept. 1. It has been cited 31 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science. There’s a conference abstract with the same title indexed in PubMed, but it has not been cited.
The other paper in question is “CYP1B1 Gene Polymorphisms Have Higher risk for Endometrial Cancer, and Positive Correlations with Estrogen Receptor α and Estrogen Receptor β Expressions,” originally published in 2003 in Cancer Research, which has been cited 62 times.
The retraction notice — a more thorough one than we usually see — often quotes the joint letter verbatim, adding that:
The two articles had some figures with the same panels used for both papers despite being experiments from two different cancers. The figures also have some panels repeated from and identical to an earlier paper studying a third type of cancer.
We haven’t been able to determine exactly when the UCSF and VA investigations started. We requested a copy of the letter sent to AACR, but Terri O’Lonergan, UCSF assistant vice chancellor and chief ethics and compliance officer, told us she would first have to determine whether it was a public document and, even if it were, that she would only release it with the agreement of the VA.
There is, however, a four-year-old thread on PubPeer, suggesting that multiple figures in each of the two papers contain suspiciously similar gel bands. Primarily, the initial PubPeer commenter noted that bands from figure 1B in each paper appeared to be the same.
The UCSF and VA investigations confirmed that those figures 1B were similar and that they indicated research misconduct. The letter, as quoted in the retraction notice, said:
The Investigation Committee reviewed in detail the analytic methods and findings of the Inquiry Committee. It unanimously agreed that there were numerous similarities between the figures in question, including the location and shape of streak and spot artifacts, as well as band morphologies were noted. This was concluded by the Committee to support the allegation of data falsification or fabrication and research misconduct.
The letter represents just one way that universities and local VA medical centers can team up on research misconduct investigations. Readers may recall the story of Azza El-Remessy, a former eye researcher in Georgia who was investigated jointly by two universities and the Charlie Norwood Veterans Affairs Medical Center, in Augusta, Georgia.
But even a joint investigation can lead to contradictory outcomes. In El-Remessy’s case, the VA eventually disagreed with the University of Georgia, and reopened its investigation. Readers may also recall the saga of Christian Kreipke, a former Wayne State University professor and John D. Dingell VA Medical Center researcher, who was the subject of misconduct probes at each institution (Kreipke has disputed the notion that they are separate probes). In Kreipke’s case, both Wayne State and the VA found misconduct and terminated him; however, a federal judge overturned the VA’s decision to fire him for misconduct, saying it had motive to retaliate against him for whistleblowing. Meanwhile, the Wayne State investigation has become the basis for a federal funding ban sought by the Office of Research Integrity in the Department of Health and Human Services.
The UCSF/VA letter also said that several images appeared to originate in third paper, “Polymorphisms of the CYP1B1 gene have higher risk for prostate cancer,” published in August 2002 in Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications. That paper has been cited 56 times.
The retraction for the Clinical Cancer Research paper is the second for last author Rajvir Dahiya, director of the Urology Research Center at UCSF with a joint appointment at the VA, and co-author Yuichiro Tanaka, also a professor at UCSF. Their first, “Genistein mediated histone acetylation and demethylation activates tumor suppressor genes in prostate cancer cells,” was retracted from the International Journal of Cancer in June and has been cited 139 times.
While the UCSF/VA letter unequivocally said that research misconduct had taken place, it did not specifically ask for the two papers to be retracted. Instead, UCSF and the VA left the final decision up to ACCR, saying that they:
recommend that both Clinical Cancer Research and Cancer Research assess these articles for correction or retraction.
As far as we can tell, Cancer Research has not made any moves to correct or retract the 2003 paper. The journal hasn’t yet responded to our request for comment on the future of that paper.
Update, 18:41 UTC time, September 15, 2017: The other paper has been retracted. You can read the notice here.
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