Brain tumor researchers retract paper from Science journal

A detail from Fig. 6 of the now-retracted paper

A brain tumor researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, has retracted a paper from Science Translational Medicine, and is a co-author on an article that another journal is examining. 

The problems in both papers, and several others with shared authors, came to light via comments on PubPeer by Elisabeth Bik and a pseudonymous commenter. 

The Science Translational Medicine paper, “A subset of PARP inhibitors induces lethal telomere fusion in ALT-dependent tumor cells,” was published last May by a group led by Russell O. Pieper, director of basic science in the UCSF Brain Tumor Center and vice-chairman of the UCSF department of neurological surgery. The paper has been cited six times, according to Clarivate’s Web of Science. 

Bik posted concerns about some of the images in the paper on PubPeer last month. According to the retraction notice, Pieper requested the retraction after learning of concerns with the same figures Bik mentioned on PubPeer: 

On 5 May 2021, Science Translational Medicine published the Research Article “A subset of PARP inhibitors induces lethal telomere fusion in ALT-dependent tumor cells” by J. Mukherjee, A. Pandita, C. Kamalakar, T.-C. Johannessen, S. Ohba, Y. Tang, C. L. Dalle-Ore, R. Bjerkvig, and R. O. Pieper (1). On 13 August 2022, the authors were made aware of concerns about the mechanistic data presented in the paper (parts of Figs. 3 to 7 and figs. S2, S5, and S6). The corresponding author, Russell O. Pieper, reported the matter to the appropriate office at his institution, the University of California–San Francisco, where it is currently being examined. In the interim, the corresponding author, with the agreement of all authors, has requested that the Research Article be retracted. Thus, Science Translational Medicine is retracting the paper in full.

In response to our request for comment, Holden Thorp, editor-in-chief of the Science family of journals, directly acknowledged that Bik’s comments prompted the examination: 

There’s not much more to add except that I’m very grateful to the authors and [Science Translational Medicine editor] Dr. [Orla] Smith for getting this done so quickly, and we’re grateful to Elisabeth Bik for bringing this to folks’ attention. 

This retraction is the first for Pieper and the first author of the paper, Joydeep Mukherjee, a researcher in Pieper’s lab. Neither has responded to our request for comment. 

Several of Pieper’s other papers, most with Mukherjee, have comments on PubPeer pointing out potential image duplication. One pseudonymous commenter, “Rumex rupestris,” identified an image that appeared to have been used in three separate papers to depict different types of cells. 

Pieper and Mukherjee are also listed as middle authors on a Nature Communications paper that “Rumex rupestris” earlier this month noted had an image with “unexpectedly similar” elements. The article, “Non-invasive assessment of telomere maintenance mechanisms in brain tumors,” was published last January, and has been cited 11 times. 

First author Pavithra Viswanath, another cancer researcher at UCSF, responded to the PubPeer comment that the figure in question “was generated by a co-author and we are working with the journal to address the highlighted issues.” She also wrote that  problems with the figure “do not impact our publication.”

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