In September 2014, an investigation into the work of an award-winning cancer researcher in Illinois concluded that multiple papers had been affected by misconduct. Now, nearly four years later, two of those articles have been retracted.
What happened in the intervening years reveals a complicated and at times bizarre story involving not only scientific misconduct, but accusations of mistreatment of lab members, gambling debts, and a failed lawsuit.
In 2014, the researcher, Jasti Rao, filed a lawsuit against his former employer, the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria, which conducted the misconduct investigation, along with his two former supervisors, accusing them of discrimination and violation of due process.
The investigation focused on both research misconduct and alleged ethics infractions, including taking cash from employees. Court documents reveal that Rao admitted to gambling during work hours, and after he was late in paying debts — including one worth $75,000 — his credit was suspended by the Par-A-Dice Casino in Peoria.
In 2017, in a summary judgment, the court ruled in favor of the university for most of Rao’s allegations. In March 2018, a decision in favor of the university was upheld on appeal. Three months later, Cancer Research issued two retractions, referring to the investigation.
Both notices say Rao objects to the retractions; his daughter Sushma Jasti Smith shared some of his correspondence with the journal about the retractions, and told Retraction Watch:
Dr. Rao strongly objected to these retractions and asked that his response be published in conjunction with any retractions. However, he received no subsequent response from the journal.
A prominent figure
…Rao set out to build what has become a successful research center. One part of the success is a patent on a process discovered by Rao and his team that, in a nutshell, inhibits the growth of tumors and kills cancer cells. The drug isn’t ready for human trials yet but an Indian company has the license from the school to begin testing its toxicity and determine if clinical trials are possible.
He now has more than 20 cancer research associates at the center….He has been the catalyst in bringing more than $26 million in research grants to the school and more than 150 of the 250 articles he has authored have been since he arrived in Peoria in the winter of 2001.
Before his resignation, Rao was one of the highest paid employees at the university, making $700,000 per year. He joined the University of Illinois in 2001 from MD Anderson, but even his hiring wasn’t without controversy: In 2003, the former chair of his department Phillip Jobe sued the Regional Dean at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Peoria, Illinois. The suit argued Jobe wasn’t rehired as chair in 2001 because he complained about the institution’s poor financial decision-making — including hiring Rao.
A few months before he received the award, however, the dean — the same person who nominated him for the award — initiated a preliminary inquiry into his lab, after receiving an anonymous letter detailing multiple allegations. The inquiry found enough evidence to justify launching a formal investigation.
The investigation kicked off in 2013, and contained two components: concerns about misconduct related to plagiarism and data manipulations, but also allegations of ethics violations related to allegations of kickbacks and fiscal improprieties, such as asking employees to pay him to keep their jobs and immigration status.
As detailed in a court document dated June 5, 2017, the allegations included:
…he demanded and accepted cash payments from at least one subordinate to pay off alleged gambling debts and concealed the extent of errors in papers published by his lab and then directed subordinates to delete documents evidencing the scope of the errors.
Indeed, as part of the preliminary inquiry into the allegations, in 2012 an outside attorney hired by the university concluded that Rao had asked at least one employee to pay back more than $15,000 of his salary — based, in part, on video secretly shot by the employee in 2010, showing him paying Rao. (According to a 2014 article in the Peoria Journal Star, Rao accused the employee of eavesdropping on him “illegally in a misguided effort to show Rao took bribes and kickbacks from employees.”)
Before the investigation had formally concluded, Rao was given the choice of resigning or being fired if the allegations were sustained — with only days to come to a decision. On March 25, 2013, he resigned.
In January 2014, Rao — a native of India — sued Dean Sarah Rusch and other people for discrimination, violation of due process, and other accusations. He filed the federal lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division.
As part of his lawsuit, in 2017 Rao asked to have Mani Pavuluri, a child psychiatrist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, testify on his behalf. That name may be familiar to readers: By 2017, Pavuluri’s research had been suspended, after an investigation showed her studies might have put participants at greater risk than they had realized. The University of Illinois at Chicago has also paid back more than $3 million in grant money. Rao’s request was denied, as it was made after the deadline for discovery had passed.
According to court documents, in the final investigation report, dated September 2014, the panel concluded:
…all of the papers under review suffered significant departures from accepted practice of the relevant professional community. The Panel also concluded that there were a number of instances in which “figures were duplicated, several with manipulation, and one figure plagiarized, in what was perceived by the Investigation Panel members as attempts to render the figures unrecognizable, lead[ing] to the conclusion that the practice was prevalent in the lab group and may have existed as an organized and encouraged behavior.”
But who was responsible? The court documents note:
The Investigation Panel, however, concluded that it “could not reach the level of confidence as indicated by the term ‘preponderance’” to find that Plaintiff was directly responsible for the issues with the papers under review, finding instead, that he acted recklessly. …Rather than accepting the Investigation Panel’s recommendation, however, [Mitra Dutta, the University’s Vice Chancellor for Research] recommended that Rao be held responsible for the errors in his lab’s publications because he was the senior author on the papers, director of the lab, and responsible for the practices under his supervision and the accuracy of data submitted for publication, emphatic about his oversight of the manuscripts, and was the individual who received the federal grant. Dutta found that the errors, which required the manipulation and rotation of images “show a disturbing pattern” indicative that Rao acted intentionally or recklessly and that the standard of proof had been met through Rao’s testimony regarding his involvement in the manuscripts, his understanding of the policies, as well as his acceptance of responsibility.
The chancellor agreed.
This week, the journal Cancer Research retracted two of Rao’s papers. Both notices cite falsifications in numerous figure panels, and that Rao did not agree to the retractions. Here, for an example, is the notice for “Demethylation-Linked Activation of Urokinase Plasminogen Activator Is Involved in Progression of Prostate Cancer:”
The University of Illinois at Chicago notified the AACR that following an institutional review, it was determined that numerous panels in Fig. 6B had been falsified. An internal investigation by the editors determined that the same lung tissues were used in different panels with apparent differences in the fluorescence signal, thus inaccurately depicting different lung tissues. Specifically, the same lung tissue was used in the following panels: panels #18, #16, and #25; panels #14 and #26; panels #35, #06, and #03; panels #20 and #30. To ensure that the research record is correct, the Cancer Research editors have decided to retract the article.
The 2007 paper has been cited 49 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.
The other retracted paper, “Small Interfering RNA–Directed Reversal of Urokinase Plasminogen Activator Demethylation Inhibits Prostate Tumor Growth and Metastasis,” has been cited 52 times since it appeared in 2007.
None of the court documents we’ve obtained list the other papers that were part of the investigation, but note that Rao submitted corrigenda “to correct errors in nine articles.”
When we contacted Rao’s lawyer, we received a response from his daughter, who said he “strongly objected to these retractions.” She forwarded correspondence he sent to the journal, in which he provided “detailed explanations” for the image concerns. In one 2016 letter he wrote:
We want to make it very clear that some of these images may appear roughly comparable but they are actually different images.
After Rao learned the papers were going to be retracted, he submitted a letter in March 2018, which he asked to be published alongside the notices. In it, he writes:
As you are fully aware, I have been involved in a wrongful termination lawsuit against the University of Illinois since 2013. I will reiterate that I have not had access to my lab or data and files since that time…As you also know, I am not the first author or the one who conducted the experiments for this article. However, based on the comments from the first author, which I submitted to you on Jan. 9, 2016, I have no reason to question the soundness of the data, as there would have been no point in duplicating any of these images.
Given that no one from [The American Association for Cancer Research, which publishes the journal] has communicated with me since 2016, and the timing of your decision coinciding with a critical time in my lawsuit against the University, it seems likely that AACR is under pressure from the University to take this action.
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