Catherine Verfaillie: Another stem cell fraudster

Published in The Hindu on October 30, 2008

Catherine Verfaillie, a University of Minnesota stem cell researcher, has followed in the foot steps of Hwang Woo Suk, the disgraced South Korean stem cell researcher who was charged with committing a fraud.

Her 2002 paper in Nature took the world by storm — she had created multipotent adult progenitor cells (MAPC) using adult bone marrow stem cells that could develop into most of the body’s tissues. And in one stroke her team’s work showed that adult stem cells were as versatile as embryonic stem cells. The icing on the cake was that her work did not involve the destruction of embryos.

Falsification confirmed

But last month saw the University’s academic misconduct committee confirming that her Ph.D student, and one of the authors of the study, had falsified data by manipulating images.

Since researchers were not able to replicate her results, the New Scientist magazine started investigating her work. And out came the skeletons.

The magazine found that the images in the Nature paper were already published in 2001 in the journal Blood. And while the Nature paper was about bone marrow stem cells taken from experimental mice, the Blood paper, using the same images, was about cells isolated from the bone marrow of humans!

The magazine found that the images were altered and flipped 180 degrees to make them appear as representing different experiments. These manipulated images were then duplicated in the Nature paper.

Verfaillie’s Ph.D student, Morayma Reyes, had used these manipulated and duplicated images in her thesis as well. And they also appear in a patent filed by Verfaillie, Reyes and others. However, the images used in the patent were to describe proteins different from those described in Blood paper! The manipulated images used in the patent were thus used to represent different things in the two journal papers.

Apart from the issue of image duplication and manipulation, the magazine also found some data were duplicated in the Nature and Experimental Hematology journals. But the University committee called them genuine errors.

But the findings by New Scientist could not be ignored. The University formed the academic misconduct committee to investigate the matter. And its findings were identical to the magazine’s. Unfortunately the committee has cleared Verfaillie of misconduct. Only Reyes’ future is in limbo as the committee has sent the report to the federal Office of Research Integrity for further action.

“It appears that a piece of data has been used multiple times to represent different things,” a stem cell researcher was quoted as saying by New Scientist (March 21, 2007). Reyes however defends herself saying that “she merely adjusted the brightness and contrast in the images without any intent to deceive” (Science, October 17, 2008).

Image manipulation is the easiest thing to do but difficult to identify. The Science journal faced this problem with Hwang. Donald Kennedy, the Editor-in-Chief of Science had stated in January 2006 that “even the unusually rigorous peer review we undertook in this [Hwang’s two papers in Science]… may fail to detect cases of well-constructed fraud.”

So where does all this lead to? Very stiff competition will see more stem-cell researchers resorting to such scientific misconduct. And if scientists act irresponsibly, journals should be able to detect frauds. It is up to the journals to find some means to get their act together and prevent such fabricated and fraudulent papers from getting published. There surely must be a way to do it.