MIT Probe Finds Former Postdoc Falsified Images | February 25, 2013 Issue - Vol. 91 Issue 8 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 91 Issue 8 | p. 6 | News of The Week
Issue Date: February 25, 2013 | Web Date: February 20, 2013

MIT Probe Finds Former Postdoc Falsified Images

Misconduct: Cell paper about imaging nerve connections retracted; new study addresses issues
Department: Science & Technology
News Channels: Biological SCENE, Analytical SCENE
Keywords: Retraction, autism, imaging, microscopy, misconduct
The Ting lab’s new technique displays a fluorescent signal (arrowheads) when neurexin and neuroligin interact.
Credit: PLoS ONE
In rat neurons, Alice Ting’s new technique, ID-PRIME, displays a fluorescent signal (arrowheads) when the proteins neurexin and neuroligin interact
The Ting lab’s new technique displays a fluorescent signal (arrowheads) when neurexin and neuroligin interact.
Credit: PLoS ONE

A former MIT chemistry postdoc fabricated figures in a 2010 publication, a university investigation has concluded. The report described a way to image an important interaction on the surfaces of living nerve cells. The journal Cell retracted it on Feb. 14 at the request of principal investigator Alice Y. Ting (DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2010.09.025). But the detection method actually works: In a simultaneous publication appearing in PLoS ONE, Ting’s team redesigns the technique, backs it up with higher quality data, and introduces a next-generation method that seems to function even better (DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0052823).

The retracted method, called BLINC (biotin labeling of intercellular contacts), was designed to detect interactions between the proteins neurexin and neuroligin. The pair is among several brain proteins involved in synapse formation. Mutations to them have been implicated in autism.

According to the retraction notice, Ting learned that her lab couldn’t reproduce the work, prompting MIT’s investigation. The probe concluded that first author Amar Thyagarajan, Ting’s former postdoc, faked data and “was solely responsible for the scientific misconduct.” Thyagarajan declined to sign the retraction notice.

BLINC was supposed to create a fluorescent signal only when neurexin and neuroligin interact. A mock-up of BLINC in kidney cells worked, Ting’s team found, but the method failed in neurons. It turned out neurons weren’t getting enough of the engineered enzyme Ting’s lab made to generate fluorescence. After fixing that, BLINC worked in neurons. But Ting’s team went a step further—they developed a new method using a different enzyme that provides a stronger fluorescence signal. Her lab has patented the technique, called ID-PRIME (interaction-dependent probe incorporation mediated by enzymes).

The new report “does an excellent job of clarifying why data in the initial paper were problematic,” says Craig C. Garner, who studies synapses at Stanford University. He thinks ID-PRIME “should find legs in the synapse community,” once the levels of engineered enzyme on neuron surfaces can be tightly controlled.

Ting tells C&EN she isn’t at liberty to discuss the retractions or the new paper. “The science in the papers kind of speaks for itself,” she says.

C&EN received a statement from Thyagarajan that first appeared on the blog Retraction Watch, which broke the story. Thyagarajan has resigned his position as a technology specialist at Boston patent law firm Clark & Elbing.

“I was not contacted by Cell about their decision to retract the paper. I want to be clear that the retraction was done over my objection,” Thyagarajan said. “I stand by the data that was published and the methodology that I developed. I and others have reproduced this method over four years. The findings against me were the result of a deeply flawed and sloppy investigation that ignored evidence that someone had tampered with and deleted my data, after the publication of the paper, and made it look as if I had falsified data.”

Thyagarajan said that the matter is now being investigated by the federal Office of Research Integrity (ORI), which investigates scientific misconduct allegations when the research is supported by federal funds. “I expect to have a full and fair opportunity to be heard before impartial fact-finders and am confident that my innocence will be established,” he added.

As required by federal privacy acts, ORI can neither confirm nor deny its involvement, says ORI Deputy Director John E. Dahlberg.

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Kris Pavlov (February 22, 2013 9:24 PM)
Here goes one more “postdoc” was solely responsible for all the data. We never know what the other side says or what actually happened. We are supposed to believe what comes out of the mouth of the PI while he/she has whole-hearted support from the University because its reputation is involved. And the only one culprit is secrecy.

Few points/ questions:

1. Wish the minutes for the meetings of the investigation committee could be available to the outside scientific community so that they would be aware of such frauds.
2. Wondering what is percentage of cases where the university employed investigating committee found the alleged researcher not guilty.
3. Is there any criteria to select the investigation committee members to avoid (i) peers pressure, (ii) mistakes in judgement due to ignorance in the field of research under investigation, (iii) tendencies to run the investigation in favor of the whistle-blower ?
4. Is there any rule to retract a paper from a highest impact journal ? or, it is solely in discretion of the PI ? Since everybody knows the PI-Postdoc relationship is not always friendly, can't we disregard the PI's reputation and the name of the institution he/she is coming from ? I know it is tough in this give-&-take world. But, this is science and not the wall-street.
5. Anybody can bring allegation against his/her students/ postdocs. University sets up an internal investigation committee and they find the truth and give the verdicts. How many students/post-docs have financial back-up to go to ORI to further appeal to prove innocence and being victimized?
Karl Wang (March 3, 2013 1:47 PM)
I once saw a talk where Alice Ting recognized only the people in her lab that produced the research she presented on. There wasn't even a slide at the end of the talk acknowledging her lab.

If data was falsified in her lab, she takes responsibility. She may have not done it deliberately or intentionally, but she probably fostered that environment.
mcbain (April 14, 2013 12:55 PM)
If a paper wins a prize, the honor belongs to the corresponding author.
If a paper has something wrong, it is due to the first author.
That is the rule of the game.

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