Adventures in Ethics and Science

There are days when I imagine that I’ll run out of news reports of scientists caught behaving badly to blog about. Then, I check my inbox.

Today, my inbox featured a news item in The Scientist about two medical researchers caught fabricating data:

Two researchers conducting animal studies on immunosuppression lied about experimental methodologies and falsified data in 16 papers and several grants produced over the past 8 years, according to the Office of Research Integrity (ORI). The scientists, Judith Thomas and Juan Contreras, formerly at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), falsely reported that they performed double kidney removals on several rhesus macaques in experiments designed to test the effectiveness of two immune suppressing drugs — Immunotoxin FN18-CRM9 and 15-deoxyspergualin (15-DSG) — in preventing rejection of a single transplanted kidney.

The experimental protocol was to remove one intrinsic kidney, replacing it with a transplant and starting the monkeys on immunosuppresants, and then remove the other intrinsic kidney a month later, according to Richard Marchase, UAB’s vice president of research. “What occurred in a good number of these animals was that [Contreras and Thomas] never performed the second surgery,” Marchase told The Scientist. In a statement emailed to The Scientist Marchase called the misconduct “a very serious offense.”

Thomas’s and Contreras’s research was funded with more than $23 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health. UAB officials learned that Contreras and Thomas had left one native kidney intact in at least 32 animals — which allowed those animals to live and inflated the apparent effectiveness of the drugs — on January 27, 2006, when Thomas reported that she found an experimental monkey with one of its native kidneys intact and blamed Contreras for the mistake.

Let’s pause for a moment to appreciate the wrongness of what was happening here.

Thomas and Contreras had secured grants on the basis of their proposal to determine the effectiveness of two immune suppressing drugs in preventing the rejection of a transplanted kidney. Seeing as how the experimental protocol called for the animals being used to end up with only the transplanted kidney (rather than keeping either of their own kidneys after the second surgery), it’s reasonable to surmise that part of what the experiment was supposed to determine was whether, in the presence of the immune suppressing drugs, the lone transplanted kidney functioned adequately as a kidney.

By skipping the removal of the second native kidney, Thomas and Contreras ended up conducting an experiment that could not answer this important question.

Worse, of course, they conducted a different experiment than the one they claimed they were conducting — and the results of the experiment that they actually did were attributed to the experimental protocol they claimed they had used. Other researchers, taking these results at face value, would assume that they could reasonably achieve such positive outcomes with the immune suppressing drugs, one transplanted kidney, and no native kidneys — even though Thomas and Contreras’s actual results don’t back this conclusion.

The rhesus macaques used in the experiments were essentially wasted. Any pain, discomfort, or distress they might have experienced in the course of the experimental work was not balanced by usable data because Thomas and Contreras lied about the conditions under which the data was obtained. To answer the questions that Thomas and Contreras’s research was supposed to answer would require new experiments and the use of more experimental animals. I imagine the members of the IACUC at UAB are fairly livid at Thomas and Contreras’s deception, and that other scientists using animals in research at UAB will be getting used to a greater degree of monitoring of their animal use.

I do not know whether any human trials of these immune suppressing drugs were launched based on the results Thomas and Contreras reported for these falsified animal studies. If so, Thomas and Contreras also exposed humans to unnecessary by publishing misleadingly positive results.

And, they accomplished all of this with $23 million of taxpayer money. Heckuva job there, Thomas and Contreras.

Marchase said that Thomas initially alleged that Contreras, a surgeon and Thomas’s former postdoc, perpetrated the misconduct on his own without her knowledge, but the UAB investigation eventually showed that Thomas was in on the deception as well.

“The lack of second nephrectomies could have been discovered years earlier from examination of animal care records and from questions and concerns raised by various UAB staff,” wrote Peter Abbrecht from ORI in a statement emailed to The Scientist, “but the principal investigator [Thomas] did not undertake any such actions, and appeared to exert very little control over the integrity of the study.” Thomas accepted responsibility for the misconduct, but both she and Contreras denied intentionally committing fraud, according to the ORI report.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: if a scientist is prepared to take credit for a scientific project in which she participated, and for the splashy results it produces, she had better be willing to take responsibility if something goes wrong with that project and those results. Especially as the principal investigator, you have a responsibility to be involved with even the aspects of the research for which your coauthors take immediate responsibility. You need to be aware. You need to pay attention to whether the protocol that was funded (and the protocol you’re presenting in those manuscripts you’re drafting) are the protocols that are actually being followed in the lab.

And if you’re going to present your postdoc as trustworthy by coauthoring papers with him, you’d better make sure you can really trust him before the manuscripts ever leave your lab.

In the aftermath, more than a dozen suspect papers have been retracted, and Thomas and Contreras have both been sanctioned by ORI and tendered their resignations to UAB:

Thomas, who was also formerly on the board of directors at the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, resigned her full professorship on January 10, 2008, after she learned of UAB’s findings. At the time of her resignation she maintained a lab with 6-10 grad students, technicians and postdocs, according to Marchase. Thomas agreed to a “Voluntary Exclusion Agreement,” under which she will not be able to receive any funding from the US government or to serve in any advisory capacity to the US Public Health Service (PHS) for ten years. …

Contreras resigned his UAB assistant professorship last week, on July 6, and also entered a voluntary agreement with the ORI in which he will be excluded from government funding and PHS advisory roles for three years. Marchase said UAB barred Contreras from being PI on projects, animal protocols, and internal review board protocols, but that, “under a very tight mentoring and oversight system, he [would] be allowed to continue to do research on other folks’ grants.” However, said Marchese, UAB’s and ORI’s combined sanctions left few options for him. “Because there was really no position left for him, he chose to resign.”

Interestingly, even though Thomas pointed the finger at her postdoc Contreras, claiming that the departure from the protocol (and thus, presumably, the false reporting of the conditions under which their data were collected) was all his doing, she was given the more severe penalty — perhaps because, as the PI, she was supposed to know better and to take primary responsibility for all her research projects.

Also worthy of note is the fact that, despite his three year voluntary exclusion from government funding, Contreras could have tried to redeem himself as a researcher working for other faculty at the university (no doubt under heavy supervision). While such an obvious departure from an experimental protocol — especially an in an experiment involving animal use — isn’t much of an ethical gray area, I think there’s something to be said for treating early-career scientists as potentially redeemable in the aftermath of such ethical screw-ups.

Of course, that redemption will have to be proven, not simply assumed.

Comments

  1. #1 Tom
    July 21, 2009

    This is sad. However, it is yet another example of free ridership: people are tempted to give themselves an advantage by breaking a rule that we all agree needs to be obeyed. Sadly, it will never stop.

  2. #2 lkhllywd
    July 21, 2009

    Please distinguish between The University of Alabama (as indicated in the headline) and the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), where this actually happened. Although they are technically part of the same system, UAB and The University of Alabama are two different places in two different cities.

    Thanks,
    A University of Alabama Alumna

  3. #3 Coturnix
    July 21, 2009

    This kind of stuff makes me so angry!!!!!

  4. #4 Jim
    July 21, 2009

    I wonder if the local US Attorney has investigated the fraud for grounds to bring before a federal grand jury? $23 million wasted is bad enough, but think of the confusion this hss caused in students’ careers at UAB.

  5. #5 Paul Browne
    July 23, 2009

    “While such an obvious departure from an experimental protocol — especially an in an experiment involving animal use — isn’t much of an ethical gray area, I think there’s something to be said for treating early-career scientists as potentially redeemable in the aftermath of such ethical screw-ups.”

    You have got to be kidding.

    We’re not talking about an honest mistake, or deviating from an approved protocol with the best of intentions, or excluding a few outliers from the analysis but rather a decade of repeatedly lying to their funders, their IACUC and to other scientists working in their field.

    What they did almost makes me wish that science has a ceremony similar to the old military drumming out.

    At the very least they should both be charged with fraud, and since they presumably included their previous falsified results in support of NIH grant applications it shouldn’t be too hard to get a conviction.

  6. #6 S. Rivlin
    July 23, 2009

    Misconduct at UAB!? That reminds me that I had personally dealt in the past with Carol Z. Garrison, the President of UAB, when she was the Provost at my university, where the University President appointed her as a one-person committee to investigate a case of scientific misconduct (plagiarism) described in a book I published in 2004. The case was involved a chairman of a department who plagiarized large portions of one of his doctoral students’ thesis onto a grant proposal he submitted. As the whistleblower in this case, I tried for weeks to meet with Provost Garrison, since I felt that she is not really advancing the investigation on the case. I became adamant in my demands to meet with her after her associate in the provost office notify me that she is going to recommend to the President to drop the complaint I filed against said chairman because the doctoral student had decided not to file a complaint against his mentor. Finally, I was granted an appointment for 15 min in a very tight schedule of the provost on a Friday at 4:30 PM. After letting me wait outside her office for approximately 30 min, I was invited in. Provost Garrison told me that she had only a few minutes, since she must leave for another engagement. Nevertheless, she said that she had made up her mind to ask the president to drop the case since the student is not willing to complain against his own mentor. I responded by stating that she doesn’t need the student’s complaint, since I am the one who is complaining. I asked her if she had witness a rape, would she report it to the police or will let it drop because the victim, for some reason or another decided not to complain. To that she answered: “Well, I still am going to recommend to the President to adopt the decision of the Dean of the Medical School” (the dean in a preliminary investigation decided to drop the case despite the recommendation of a Medical School investigative committee to pursue it). I responded by telling her that I respect her position and opinion on the issue, but that I am not satisfied that the University is doing the right thing by dismissing the case, and thus, I may consider other options. She demanded to know what options I may consider. I told her that there is a member of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Science, Mr. Brown, who is investigating cases of scientific misconduct and that one of those cases is very similar to the case in front of her. She immediately snapped at me: “Don’t you blackmail me, do you hear?” The following Monday she turn the case back to the President without any recommendation, simply washing her hands of it. The President gave the task to the University Vice President for Research. The President himself was recruited by the University of Tennessee a year later and Provost Garrison, with strong recommendation from that President, became, shortly thereafter, the winning candidate for the job of President of UAB ( http://main.uab.edu/Sites/president/ ). Not surprisingly, a scandal of extravagance in spending of taxpayer money by the new UT President brought to light the extramarital affair he had with Carol Z. Garrison, which had continued after both of them became presidents of UT and UAB, respectively ( http://www.wate.com/Global/story.asp?S=1394509 ).

  7. #7 Bob C
    July 29, 2009

    I agree that as a former employee of UAB, there is frequent cover-ups that occur. Research never occurs in a vaccum. It always goes thru Institutional Review Boards and other reviews within the organization. It would be ludicrous to believe that just 2 professors could pull this off without any direction from above. I have a strong reason to believe that these 2 professors were the ‘fall guys’ or the ‘fall guy and the fall girl’. Otherwise, why would they voluntarily resign? I strongly feel that the Feds need to come in (once again!) and clean up the mess including fraud occuring at this institution. Good education but a lot of bad and greedy people! They want to be top 10 in country in receiving grants from the NIH, AT ANY COST!

  8. #8 Silver Fox
    October 5, 2009

    In her response to Paul Browne, the issue that Dr. Free-Ride doesn’t grasp is fraud. She continues to refer to the infraction as a “misstep”. In a “misstep” there is a presumption that the intention to commit fraud was not present. That doesn’t appear to be the case here.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.