An Australian university cleared a cancer researcher of misconduct. He’s now retracted six papers.

Levon Khachigian

The story of Levon Khachigian’s research is a long and winding tale.

One place to start would be in October 2009, when a paper co-authored by Khachigian — whose work at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) has been funded by millions of dollars in funding from the Australian government, and has led to clinical trials, although more on that later — was retracted from Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications. The “corresponding author published the paper without the full consent or acknowledgement of all the researchers and would like to apologize for this error,” according to that notice.

Three more papers, all from the Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC), were retracted the following July, saying only that “This article has been withdrawn by the authors,” as was typical for the JBC for many years.

A bit less than three years later, David Vaux, of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (and now a member of the board of directors of our parent non-profit organization, The Center For Scientific Integrity), wrote to UNSW about a different paper by Khachigian, “c-Jun regulates shear- and injury-inducible Egr-1 expression, vein graft stenosis after autologous end-to-side transplantation in rabbits, and intimal hyperplasia in human saphenous veins.” Six of the figures in that paper, Vaux wrote in an email dated February 14, 2013,

appear to contain duplications and/or alterations of images in such a way that the same data is used to represent two different conditions.

Vaux continued:

In this case I believe it would be important to act quickly, as patients may currently be receiving the agent described in the publication, Dz13, as part of a clinical trial. If the results in this paper are not genuine, the HREC that approved the trial might have been misled, and the patients receiving the drug might not have been able to give properly informed consent.

The paper was retracted on December 28, 2018, nearly six years after Vaux’s initial message:

This article has been withdrawn by the authors. The article was the subject of independent external investigations commissioned by the University of New South Wales in 2014 that made no finding of error beyond those specified in the November 2013 correction. However, the Journal raised questions regarding Figs. 1A and 5B, which the authors were not able to address as the raw data were no longer available.

A lot, however, happened in those six years.

A trial suspended

A week after receiving Vaux’s message in 2013, UNSW deputy vice-chancellor for research Les Field wrote to Khachigian, saying he would be conducting a preliminary investigation and asking for the original data behind the JBC article.

Meanwhile, on March 19, Khachigian registered a second planned trial of Dz13, a compound that scientists hoped could treat skin cancers, among other conditions. But on July 30, that trial was suspended, with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reporting that Khachigian and his team had been cleared of misconduct in two previous investigations but were the subject of a third. In October, Khachigian was placed on leave.

A month later, in November 2013, the JBC issued a correction for several of the figures in the 2010 paper, all of which had been questioned by Vaux. It turns out that UNSW had not informed the JBC of the investigation, according to an email from Iain Martin, vice president and deputy vice-chancellor, to Vaux. Martin wrote:

UNSW made the conscious and considered decision to maintain confidentiality and not to notify the Journal at this stage of proceedings.

Less than two months later, on New Year’s Day 2014, Australia’s NHMRC began funding an $8.3 million (AUS), 5-year grant to study Dz13, led by Khachigian — who was, at the time, still on leave.

In July 2014, Martin told Khachigian that he had once again been cleared of misconduct. And in May 2015, Martin said in a memo to UNSW faculty and staff that Khachigian would be returning to the university on May 18.

No finding of research misconduct was made in relation to Professor Khachigian. The investigations found that there had breaches by Professor Khachigian of the UNSW Research Code but that these breaches were the result of genuine error or honest oversight, not deliberate or intentional conduct. The experts also found that the scientific conclusions in relevant published material were unaffected by the errors which were minor. The panels noted that Professor Khachigian did not fail in his supervisory responsibility and had mechanisms in place to ensure the accurate recording and reporting of original data and had procedures in place to avoid error.

In November 2015, UNSW issued a statement to that effect. Meanwhile, in early 2016, Circulation Research retracted another paper by Khachigian, also for figure issues. And last month, the JBC retracted the 2010 paper, making the sixth retraction for Khachigian, who did not respond to a request for comment from Retraction Watch for this story.

Of note: The data were available to make the initial correction to the JBC paper, but despite whatever mechanisms Khachigian had in place to record all the data, they were apparently unavailable when JBC asked for the raw data behind two of the figures.

The Dz13 trial was never restarted.

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4 thoughts on “An Australian university cleared a cancer researcher of misconduct. He’s now retracted six papers.”

  1. So, you can retract more papers than a PhD student will publish, ‘lose’ your raw data, have procedures that are so poor that they leave you open to 3 misconduct investigations that find that you did, in fact, breach codes of responsible conduct of research… and come back to your professor’s salary.

    But the ECRs who don’t want to p-hack get fired (e.g. contract not renewed, fellowship not funded).

  2. The second Dz13 clinical trial was stopped before it began. What happened with the first clinical trial of Dz13? Were the retracted papers relevant to this earlier trial? Were there investigations taking place while this trial was being conducted?

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