Bad Scientist: U of M busted for false data in research project

Categories: Health Care

After being accused of intentionally falsifying data to produce evidence for a stem cell research project, former University of Minnesota employee Dr. Morayma Reyes is shouting innocence.

Reyes, who now works at the the University of Washington, says any misconduct during her work as a student in Dr. Catherine's Verfaillie's laboratory was entirely accidental. She blames the University's investigative committee's findings of impropriety on a lack of expertise--a strange statement for someone who themselves is being accused of using a "poor scientific method and inadequate training."

In a letter to the editor published in the Star Tribune Wednesday, Reyes wrote:

These were honest errors in part due to inexperience, poor training and lack of clear standards and guidelines about digital image handling and proper presentation. That said I completely disagree with the statement that “the manipulation misrepresented experimental data and sufficiently altered the original research record to constitute falsification”. This incorrect statement stemmed from a difference of opinion about the interpretation of the results which clearly reflects lack of expertise by the UMN panel in the research area in question, stem cell biology.

Something that University of Minnesota Vice President of Research Tim Mulcahy says is entirely untrue. The University is planning on releasing a rebuttal statement later in the week, but Mulcahy took the time to talk to City Pages Wednesday night.

"I can assure you we stand by the process. We believe it was a fair and impartial review," says Mulcahy. “[Reyes] was afforded every opportunity along the way to provide input and at the end of the day [the committee] believed that the balance of the evidence still left them with the conclusion that the data was knowingly falsified. ...We had an obligation to fulfill and I think we have fulfilled it as well."

The committee that evaluated the work of Reyes and Verfaillie, published in the academic journal Blood in 2001, was composed of three distinguished professors: one from the University of Minnesota, another from University of California Las Angeles, and a third from the University of Michigan. After more than a year's worth of effort, the panel concluded that four figures "were knowingly falsified prior to submission to the publication,” says Mulcahy.

"The panel weighed evidence against each individual independently and concluded that Catherine Verfaillie was exonerated, and it wasn’t due to a process or elimination. It wasn’t well because it wasn’t Catherine, it had to be someone else, what they concluded deliberately was someone else actually did this," Mulcahy says, adding that that someone else was Reyes.

"Presumably when cases like this happen…data is typically falsified to make your case better to make your position more strong.”

According to the Associated Press, Reyes and Verfaillie's research has received international attention "because of political and ethical controversies over research involving embryonic stem cells."

The study was one of a series that Verfaillie published, suggesting that adult stem cells could be used as an alternative to embryonic stem cells in medical research.

The University asked Blood to retract the article. Other decrepincies were found in data published by the pair in the Journal of Clinical Investigation by the committee to be in "honest error." There was not enough evidence for the committee to substantiate that data was intentionally modified, says Mulcahy. The University has notified the editorial board of JCI.

Mulcahy says questionable work at University of Minnesota is rare.

"This make no statement at all about the integrity of our research in general," he says.

Breaches in ethics in science reporting do occur occasionally and unfortunately that did occur here, he adds. But, the fact that the errors were caught and dealt with it appropriately shows the University's strong commitment to ethical scholarship.

"Ideally this would never happen. In reality, it does sometimes and I think we managed it appropriately in this case.’

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