Fired Researcher Denies Blame For Disputed Data | Chemical & Engineering News
  • CORRECTION: A version of this story published online on June 18 stated Jingwu Z. Zhang was asked not to contact certain people because of a disputed paper. Zhang says the paper was not mentioned, and this story has been revised to reflect that.

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Web Date: June 19, 2013

Fired Researcher Denies Blame For Disputed Data

Research Integrity: Former GlaxoSmithKline R&D leader in China claims mixup in Nature Medicine paper was inadvertent
Department: Business
Keywords: China, multiple sclerosis, pharmaceutical R&D, ethics

A former GlaxoSmithKline executive, Jingwu Z. Zhang, who was in charge of the company’s neuroscience R&D effort worldwide as well as its China research operations, says he is being unfairly blamed for allegedly misrepresenting data in a research paper published in Nature Medicine in 2010 (DOI: 10.1038/nm.2077).

The paper concerned a hypothesized genetic link for multiple sclerosis. Earlier this month, GSK announced that it had fired Zhang and suspended three other China-based researchers after an internal investigation discovered problems with the data (C&EN, June 17, page 20). GSK says the paper should be retracted. The paper is still on Nature Medicine’s website, however, and a spokesperson for the journal says it does not comment on retractions that may or may not be in progress.

Appearing shaken by the damage done to his reputation as well as confused by what he characterizes as GSK’s decision to pin the blame on him, Zhang tells C&EN that his conscience is clear. “I do take responsibility for the paper; I was a corresponding author,” he says. “But I was not involved in the minute details.”

Zhang says he was fired for “influencing the investigation,” but he denies doing so. According to Zhang, GSK officials told him not to contact certain people because they were being investigated. Zhang says he was unaware that the investigation concerned the paper and that he was also a target. So he disregarded the order and contacted the people as well as another manager in an effort to review all projects in that department. “I was trying to explore what issues might have triggered this investigation,” he says. “This was a manager’s natural reaction.”

Of Zhang’s protestations, GSK says, “We are confident in the thorough investigation we conducted and the actions we have taken as a result of our findings. We will not tolerate activity and behavior that falls short of the high standards expected from our employees.”

The paper included a figure labeled as data on multiple sclerosis patients that was in fact data from healthy patients. The mislabeling of the data, Zhang says, was the result of a mix-up that neither he nor his coauthors noticed. The mislabeled figure was not the key part of the paper, he says: “The other five figures, which were about the animal models—they were the substance.”

Research on multiple sclerosis has formed the basis of his career since 1986, Zhang says. “I’ve been meaning to cure this disease.” When he was hired at GSK in 2007, Zhang says he formed a project team focused on multiple sclerosis. His goal was to try to explain a connection between the illness and a gene coding for the protein interleukin-7 that had been reported in the literature. “I wanted to know the exact link between this gene and MS and explain it through biology,” he says.

No other multinational drug company has assigned the management of a whole disease area to China, Zhang says of his leadership of GSK’s neuroscience R&D efforts. Now, he worries that the research paper data controversy may adversely affect the development of world-class pharmaceutical R&D in China.

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Dave  (June 19, 2013 6:24 PM)
And now the article is back up after I pointed out it was pulled in the related article? Jeez.
» Reply
Brian Rothermel  (July 4, 2013 12:59 PM)
I was Dr.Zhangs 4th patient to receive MS T-cell vaccine at 7 million each per my five cloned auto-reactive MBP cells at Baylor College Medicine.After 2nd sub-Q injection all my MBP attacking T-cell were non detectable in T-cell frequency analysis test.My EDSS score went from a 4 to 1 with complete remission of brain stem scaterred-foci and 5 more white brain lesions totally remissed.Only one dark brain lesion scar tissue remains after getting a total 15 injections.Optic neuritis also 90% disappeared.Diagnosed in 1995 my neurologist gave me three year prognosis.I have deepest respect and confidence in Dr. Zhangs research efforts and owe him my life for accepting me in his MS study.Humanity will suffer if he is not back at the GSK head of research for new RA vaccine.I owe my life to this relentless research scientist and pray for his reinstatement.
Dr. Robert Medaer, neurologist, Belgium  (September 21, 2013 5:07 PM)
I am following Dr.Zangs reseach since 1990 when he develloped the T-cell vaccine in Hasselt, Belgium. A lot of my patients recieved the vaccine in the 90-tys, uptill now I have a follow up of about 60 patients over 20 years and they are still doing well.
Dr. Zang Jingwu is in my opinion a great researcher with a life-long dedication to the cause of ms.His original approach to the management/treatment of the ms problem makes him one of the most important researchers in the difficult field of ms research.
Daniel  (March 19, 2014 6:47 PM)
We need more patient data to support/or dispute Dr. zhang's results.
To my opinion, clinical proven result is 100 times more important than a Nature paper even though sometimes that data doesn't meet the rigorous scientific standard. If that is effective, he should continue his work in this field.
brian rothermel  (July 27, 2014 12:00 AM)
Dear Daniel, As patient #4 receiving Dr.Zhangs MS t-cell vaccine in 1998. I am still doing well even though the two MBP t-cells that always needed re-vaccination have returned.When I was getting booster vaccines every year I required no meds., but since I have not got a MS t-cell vaccine in 7 years I've returned to Copaxone daily injections and other meds. to get me the most energy and quality of life as I can. Tovaxin now renamed Tcelna is on FDA fast track and hopefully everyone can enjoy the MRI improvement I had when getting my T-cell vaccine and booster injections twice yearly.Others now carry out Dr. Zhangs MS t-cell cloning in labs. and if FDA approved his groundbreaking treatment may become best no. 1 MS treatment stopping all MBP,PLP, and MOG,auto-reactive t-cells from migrating into CNS.Hopefully all MS patients can soon get Tcelna in the very next FDA ruling on final study in progress.I can't wait! Brian Rothermel,patient #4 of 10 in Baylor College of Medicine's non-placebo dosage study headed by DR.Victor M. Rivera and Dr. Jingwu Zhang
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