Former Cedars-Sinai scientist committed misconduct in food preservatives-obesity paper

A former researcher at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center has been sanctioned by a Federal watchdog for misconduct in a 2017 paper that claimed to link food preservatives and obesity.

Uthra Rajamani, first author of the paper in Nature Communications, “engaged in research misconduct,” according to the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI), and agreed to have any Federally funded research supervised for a year. She also agreed to request the retraction of the paper in question.

The ORI announcement does not specify the type of misconduct Rajamani committed, but refers to an upcoming Federal Register notice that, if past history is any indication, should contain those details. [See update at end of post.] In a statement to Retraction Watch, Cedars-Sinai said:

After a research paper was published in 2017, Cedars-Sinai researchers discovered discrepancies in data associated with the findings. We launched a review and, consistent with Cedars-Sinai values, immediately reported the results to the attention of the peer-reviewed journal and federal scientific agencies. We dealt with this isolated incident swiftly and vigorously because we are committed to the integrity and responsibility of our scientific work. The scientist involved in this case is no longer with Cedars-Sinai.

The paper, “Endocrine disruptors induce perturbations in endoplasmic reticulum and mitochondria of human pluripotent stem cell derivatives,” captured some media attention after a press release from Cedars-Sinai saying that it “shows how food preservatives may disrupt human hormones and promote obesity.” It has been cited five times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.

Rajamani, who was apparently a post-doc at Cedars-Sinai, published at least five papers with Ishwarlal “Kenny” Jialal, who at one time faced misconduct allegations at the University of California, Davis. One of those papers was corrected because “an error occurred in Figure (b) during the production process.”

Update, 1500 UTC, 12/22/18: The Federal Register notice has been published, with details of what happened in the Nature Communications paper.

ORI found that Respondent knowingly and intentionally falsified western blot images in Nature Communications 2017 by using the same western blot panel to represent the expression of different proteins from whole cell lysates exposed to different endocrine disrupting chemical (EDC) treatments. Specifically, Respondent:

  • Digitally altered the original image to darken the western blot panel for COX IV expression in Figure 4b in Nature Communications 2017 and represented the blot as the expression of:

—pNF-kB p65 Figure 4b in Nature Communications 2017

—NF-kB p65 Figure 4b in Nature Communications 2017

—p50 Figure 4b in Nature Communications 2017

—p105 Figure 4b in Nature Communications 2017

—p100 Figure 4b Nature Communications 2017

  • Digitally altered the original image by superimposing a darker band over the original bands in lanes 2 and 4 of the western blot panel for COX IV expression in whole cell lysates exposed to different endocrine disrupting chemical (EDC) treatments in Figure 4b in Nature Communications 2017 and represented the falsified blot in Figure 6a in Nature Communications2017 as expression of:

— P-p65 Figure 6a in Nature Communications 2017

— p50 Figure 6a in Nature Communications 2017

— p105 Figure 6a in Nature Communications 2017

— p52 Figure 6a in Nature Communications 2017

  • Reused and relabeled the blot from Figure 3d in Cell Stem Cell 22:698-712, 2018 to falsely represent BiP expression under different experimental conditions in Figure 3d in Nature Communications 2017.

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