A rather grim report has revealed that a researcher, formerly of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, forged the labels on the blood samples of 98 human subjects for use in a series of studies. Although they would appear to be from donors or subjects involved in cancer genetics research, all samples actually came from the academic herself.
The US Office of Research Integrity (ORI) notice explains that the subject of the investigation “engaged in research misconduct by intentionally and knowingly falsifying and/or fabricating data.”
As first reported by Retraction Watch, the ORI case study notes that the fraudulent behavior affected two papers – both published in 2015, in the journals Cancer and PLOS ONE. The former has retracted its paper, and the latter has just been made aware of the issue and is undertaking an investigation.
The antagonist in question, one Maria Cristina Miron Elqutub – a research interviewer – has, as a result of the findings, agreed to have her work supervised for three years.
The institutions employing her must also constantly verify that all her data is legitimate, that it’s based on actual experimental work, and that any publications she’s involved in meet the very highest standards of transparency and precision. The PLOS One article she participated in must also either be corrected or otherwise retracted.
It’s unclear why Elqutub took this action. Details of the investigation are somewhat sparse at this point, but it appears that it came to light when the 98 samples were used in another study. When they were found to not produce data in line with that reported by Elqutub, suspicions were raised.
Although it’s a relief that this curious case has been brought to light by the ORI, some external, unnecessary damage may have already been done. The papers were only cited a handful of times, so that’s limited the contamination somewhat, but perhaps a bigger problem looms.
Retraction Watch highlights that Adel El-Naggar, a co-author on both papers – who, like the other researchers, was unaware of the fraudulent samples – is the principal investigator on a grant worth $1.3 million. This funding for additional cancer genetics research now hangs in the balance, pending additional revelations from the ORI investigation.
Cancer is a hydra; a multi-headed ancient beast that we’re still trying to understand, let alone eradicate. Thanks to the hard work of researchers across the planet, however, people are living longer, being cured, and being given genuine, practical hope that a diagnosis is no longer a death sentence.
This case doesn’t undermine that in the slightest. Yes, it’s grim, but it’s good to see that institutions are working hard to stamp out behavior like this when it, on a rare occasion, rears its head.