Doctored Images, Fake Data, Plagiarism: Scandals Rock Alzheimer’s, Cancer ResearchJuly 28, 2022
Welcome to the latest edition of Investigative Roundup, highlighting some of the best investigative reporting on healthcare each week.
Doctored Images in Alzheimer’s Research?
An investigation by Science Magazine tells how Matthew Schrag, MD, PhD, neuroscientist and physician at Vanderbilt, unearthed serious problems with research on a protein subtype of amyloid beta that has been a cornerstone of research and spending on Alzheimer’s for over a decade.
Schrag found that images accompanying highly cited Alzheimer’s studies touting major breakthroughs for the field were very plausibly altered. Using the online platform PubPeer, where scientists flag mistakes in research, Schrag stumbled upon comments on articles led by Sylvain Lesné, PhD, of the University of Minnesota.
Western blot images from the articles showed bands of molecules separated by size, but Schrag was able to point to many cases where parts of these bands appear to have been copied and pasted, calling into question their findings. Lesné’s images had supported a theory that an oligomer species called Aβ*56 was the most important of many oligomers, which were thought to be more pathogenic than other plaques — and thus, a potential drug target.
One of the papers, published in Nature, has been cited 2,300 times, and related NIH funding for related oligomer and Alzheimer’s research grew to $287 million. Lesné and the lab where he worked won accolades: awards, grants, and prominence. “You can cheat to get a paper. You can cheat to get a degree. You can cheat to get a grant. You can’t cheat to cure a disease,” Schrag told Science Magazine. “Biology doesn’t care.”
Fake Data, Plagiarism Detected at Cancer Lab
Nature has learned that Ohio State University’s inquiries into papers from the lab of superstar cancer researcher Carlo Croce, MD, proceeded to formal investigations — and two of these discovered multiple instances of research misconduct.
In particular, the investigations found evidence of data falsification and plagiarism by scientists under Croce, Michela Garofalo and Flavia Pichiorri, both of whom have since left the university.
Pichiorri was found to have falsified research data nine times in three papers, and the university’s investigation committee found 11 instances where Garofalo had plagiarized and falsified images in 8 papers.
Both researchers have defended their work. Pichiorri said she was overwhelmed with pressure from Croce and the lab, and had limited imaging skills. Garofalo said she didn’t understand what plagiarism was, and that image flaws didn’t affect the research outcomes.
Croce, for his part, is suing the university, whose committee said the lab environment Croce had created was inadequate, and that he had “poor mentorship and lack of oversight,” Nature reported.
Nature also found that OSU instructed Croce and his former researchers to retract or correct more than a dozen problematic papers. But only one of the 15 papers, which had false data and other mistakes, has been retracted, and two corrected.
$13M Settles Allegations of Improper Payments to Doctors
Medical device manufacturer Biotronik paid and rewarded doctors for using their implantable heart devices, including pacemakers and defibrillators, according to the Department of Justice. The company violated the False Claims Act when they submitted reimbursement claims for the related procedures from Medicare and Medicaid.
A Biotronik employee training program was at the heart of the kickback scheme, according to the settlement. Biotronik paid doctors excessively for training their employees on procedures involving the devices, and even for training events that never took place.
According to the DOJ, Biotronik also paid for “holiday parties, winery tours, lavish meals with no legitimate business purpose and international business class airfare and honoraria,” if they came to international company conferences.
“Paying kickbacks to doctors to influence their selection of medical devices undermines the integrity of federal healthcare programs,” Brian Boynton, principal deputy assistant attorney general and head of DOJ’s civil division, said in a statement. “When medical devices are used in surgical procedures, patients deserve to know that their device was selected based on quality of care considerations and not on improper payments from manufacturers.”