Adeel Safdar was once a rising star in the field of kinesiology. After completing his doctorate degree at McMaster University in Canada, working with one of the titans of his field, Safdar took a postdoc at Harvard, then accepted a newly created chair position at another university in Ontario.
That all came crashing down last year, when Safdar went on trial in Canada, accused of horrifically abusing his wife. Over the course of the trial, allegations arose about his research, prompting two journals to flag papers he co-authored with his former mentor, Mark Tarnopolsky.
Tarnopolsky — author of more than 400 papers, which have collectively been cited more than 17,000 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science — told Retraction Watch:
The retractions are based upon questions brought to my attention by external professors and I did my due diligence and brought this to the attention of McMaster University and they are investigating to determine the course of action.
There is much misinformation circulating and of course I cannot provide comments on any of these issues as they are part of ongoing investigations.
We’ve asked Tarnopolsky to clarify if the two papers are slated for retraction; he told us:
The final decision regarding retractions…will be determined using policies of the journals and the final decision from the investigation at McMaster as I understand it.
A representative of McMaster told us the university’s research integrity policy prohibits it from confirming or commenting on a possible investigation.
The two papers flagged with expressions of concern are:
- Exercise increases mitochondrial PGC-1 α content and promotes nuclear-mitochondrial cross-talk to coordinate mitochondrial biogenesis, Journal of Biological Chemistry. Cited 146 times since it was published in 2011. Here is its EOC.
- Endurance exercise rescues progeroid aging and induces systemic mitochondrial rejuvenation in mtDNA mutator mice, PNAS. Cited 162 times since it was published in 2011.
According to the upcoming notice in PNAS, which will appear on Monday:
The editors wish to note that the following concerns were brought to our attention by Mark Tarnopolsky: “The loading controls in Fig. 3B, vi, and Fig. S6A, vi, appear to be identical in both figures.”
A promising career
Both papers examined the benefits of exercise in curbing the aging process, a subject about which Tarnopolsky has been frequently quoted in the news.
But Tarnopolsky’s former collaborator — he and Safdar have co-authored more than 30 papers together — is in the news for entirely different reasons lately. In September, the trial investigating allegations of domestic abuse began, in which his wife accused him and his family members of repeated, horrific acts. They have argued that she is mentally ill.
Everything we know about the case comes from The Hamilton Spectator. On March 27, the paper reported:
[Prosecuting attorney Jeff] Levy told the court the McMaster investigation stems from October 2016 when Safdar was working for Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky…Safdar was asked to prove his research results to pharmaceutical company representatives, but he was unable to reproduce them, Levy told the court.
Safdar’s attorney, Dean Paquette, declined to comment, citing the ongoing trial.
While at McMaster, Safdar earned numerous awards, according to this 2012 news release announcing that he had won a national award for graduate students:
McMaster graduate’s PhD research on aging has earned him a national award from the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (CAGS) and University Microfilms International (UMI).
The CAGS/UMI Distinguished Dissertation Award recognizes students who made an original contribution in their field of study.
“To me, this award is the equivalent to a mini-Nobel Prize at the graduate level,” Safdar said.
That’s notable from someone who has received numerous national and international awards, including the Governor General’s Academic Gold Medal, the Kelsey Wright Award for Excellence in Mitochondrial Medicine, the International Biochemistry of Exercise Young Investigator Award, the CIHR Age Plus Prize and the Gatorade Young Investigator Award.
After leaving McMaster, Safdar began a postdoc at Harvard; according to The Spectator, he lost his position there in 2013. In 2015, he was arrested after his wife pressed charges. In February 2017, Humber College in Toronto announced that he had accepted the new BioSteel Research Chair, the first to hold the position at Humber. According to The Spectator:
In December , Humber confirmed Safdar worked there and said it knew nothing of his charges or that he was currently on trial. A few days later, Humber said Safdar was no longer employed there because his contract had expired.
Tarnopolsky told The Spectator that he has asked to retract the JBC paper:
Tarnopolsky says all six authors of the paper, including himself, went over the research and results and found nothing suspect before they submitted it for publication. He says in the seven years between publication and the recent allegation, nobody raised concerns.
The allegation, he explains, stems from “blot manipulation.” Blots showing protein cause a unique pattern, almost like a fingerprint. The accusation is that Safdar used the same blot twice or manipulated a blot.
One of Safdar’s papers written while he was at Harvard was withdrawn from JBC in 2015. According to the last author, the article was withdrawn “due to nomenclature errors” and resubmitted only one week later; it was published two months later under a slightly different title.
Safdar isn’t the first researcher to face criminal charges unrelated to his work: In 2009, allergy researcher Edward Erin was convicted of trying to poison his mistress, and in 2014, neuroscientist Robert Ferrante was convicted of killing his wife. More recently, Hengjun Chao, a former research assistant professor at Mount Sinai, was found guilty of shooting a dean who had fired him a few years earlier.
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