“The sampling had been compromised:” MD Anderson researchers retract cancer study

Erich Sturgis

Researchers from the University of Texas, MD Anderson Cancer Center have retracted a 2015 paper after they discovered their samples had been compromised.

Exactly how the samples were compromised, and how and when the researchers found out, remains unclear.

Originally published March 30, 2015, in Cancer, “Genome-wide association study identifies common genetic variants associated with salivary gland carcinoma and its subtypes” reported that at least three protein-coding gene variants were associated with rare salivary gland cancers. In the paper, the authors — all but one of whom are affiliated with MD Anderson — cautioned that they still needed to confirm the findings and figure out the mechanism by which the genes might increase the risk of cancer.

On Oct. 23, 2017, the researchers asked the journal to either correct or withdraw the paper. According to the retraction notice issued Jan. 9, the researchers had discovered:

that, unbeknownst to them, the sampling had been compromised, resulting in duplicate samples involving 93 controls and 4 cases. This led to a change in sample size, statistical power, and some of the results.

According to the paper, the study included 535 cancer-free controls. 

Cancer is the flagship journal for the American Cancer Society. An ACS spokesperson told us that last author Erich Sturgis, of MD Anderson, called Fadlo Khuri, the journal’s Editor-in-Chief, to report the problem:

Sturgis respectfully requested an erratum, or if an erratum was not deemed possible, requested to retract the paper. Our Editor-in-Chief, the Section Editor, and one of our statistical reviewers examined the material and determined that retraction was indeed warranted.

The journal added that it told Sturgis it would retract the paper on Nov. 7, 2017:

All authors were notified of this decision by Dr. Sturgis on November 9, 2017, and again by me on December 7, 2017. Dr. Sturgis assisted with drafting the retraction notice, which published on January 9, 2018.

When we reached out to Sturgis, he referred us to an MD Anderson spokesperson, who told Retraction Watch that, as a matter of policy:

MD Anderson does not comment on these sorts of inquiries.

The spokesperson later added:

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center is committed to the highest standards of scientific integrity and supports the authors’ decision to retract the article in order to address the issues that the authors identified as noted in the journal.

We asked ACS for more details about the error, but they referred us back to Sturgis.

The 2015 paper has been cited six times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.

Hat tip: Rolf Degen

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