The reverberations of the Macchiarini-scandal at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm have now reached the University of Gothenburg (GU). For those who have followed the anonymous reporting on the website Pubpeer during last week it comes as no big surprise. More than ten articles have been posted there showing several cases of irregular and dubious use of images. All of the articles have the same name as main author.
The Dean of Sahlgrenska Akademin, the department at GU for medical research, has now formally reported these cases to the University Chancellor and asks for an investigation of these papers.
The articles concern a number of research topics, mainly about issues touching upon the transplantations of liver, trachea or blood vessels.
In the report to the chancellor , the Dean, Olle Larkö, writes:
“…a close inspection of the suspected deviations confirms that there is cause to proceed with a more meticulous investigation.”
There are particularly two cases where the Dean finds “obvious examples of suspected misconduct”.
These two can be seen at a) https://pubpeer.com/publications/19025915 where the same image is used first in 2008, and a second time in 2013, with two different descriptions,
and at b) http://i.imgur.com/OPqAkJP.jpg where a similar reuse of images seem to have taken place. Here, the cells in the microscopic image are first described as coming from a biopsy from a patients nose, and then as hepatocytes, liver cells.
To add to the consternation, there is an anonymous report on reuse of the same image a third time.
The GU Chancellor, Pam Fredman, says to medical newspaper Dagens Medicin, that it is extremely important to investigate every aspect of this. But adds that suspicions are not equivalent to a conviction.
That is obviously true. Let the investigation run its course. But the sheer number of cases makes it hard to accept that they all would be the result of mistakes or carelessness. If that is so, what other, as yet undiscovered mistakes, can we expect to find in these and other articles? Commentators on Pubpeer and Twitter haven’t missed out on the opportunity to gloat and give slightly sarcastic comments on the mix-ups/fraudulent use of the photos. Liver cells migrating to the nose? What next? Are we seeing the wonders of stem cells in action?
After Macchiarini it is indeed easy to be cynical about the ethics in Swedish medical research. And the GU case doesn’t help.
The connections to Macchiarini are there. In the wake of all the post-Macch. investigations at KI, Gothenburg University decided on their part to take a closer look at a tracheal transplant made there in 2008, with a donor trachea seeded with the patients own stem cells. The patient died, according to the case report from heart failure, not connected to the transplant. The main author of the report is the same person now suspected of image manipulation. Her name is Suchitra Sumitran-Holgersson, professor of transplant biology at GU.
The research director at Sahlgrenska University Hospital who initiated this investigation said that the reason was not suspicions of misconduct, but that they wanted to cover all bases and make sure that the ethical rules had been followed. Particularly to clear up the grey area between research and medical care.
Shortly thereafter, the hospital decided to also investigate three more operations where the case reports have professor Sumitran-Holgersson as the last name in the list of authors. These three operations are transplantations of tissue-engineered blood vessels on children, all made in the name of the same medical scientist. The investigations are to be made by prof Bengt Gerdin of Uppsala, the original Macchiarini investigator – a man who has become very busy lately.
It was after the decision to make these post-Macchiarini investigations, on March 1st, that the anonymous reports about the images on Pupeer started to drop in. And they just kept coming.
And the big thundercloud hovering over the whole affair is of course the fact that the same scientist was from 2008 to 2010 the object of a large investigation for misconduct at KI. She was convicted, fired and her grants were frozen. But after a reinvestigation she was later exonerated. Some have called her sentencing a “gross miscarriage of justice”; others say the opposite, that the exoneration was a scandal. Suffice to say; in the world of Swedish medical science it was a very big deal. The affair is still echoing in the halls of both KI and GU. Regardless of which side is right, she has been at GU now for a number of years, done what seems to be very successful work, but which is now being seriously questioned.
Now, those who wanted her punished are convinced they were right all the time.
But, what maybe is more important: if this later work on regenerating tissue, particularly that which claims to create new veins from blood cells, is problematic, what will be the impact on regenerative medicine and the future of organ engineering with stem cells. After Macchiarini one wonders, is there anything there at all?