Doubts raised over U study

A magazine claimed to have discovered discrepencies in a scientist's studies.

Mike Enright

For the second time in the past year, serious questions are surfacing about the work of a prominent University stem cell scientist.

The concerns, the subject of an article published last week in New Scientist magazine, center on Dr. Catherine Verfaillie, an internationally recognized leader in adult stem cell research.

According to Peter Aldhous, the magazine’s San Francisco bureau chief, while analyzing a 2001 Verfaillie paper printed in the medical journal Blood and a patent application approved in 2006, the publication discovered three images that seemed to have been duplicated between the two.

“What appears to be the case is that there were three occasions where there is a gel described, in the paper Blood published in 2001, where the same image is in the patent. But in the patent, it is supposed to be describing a different protein, and in most cases a different experiment,” Aldhous said.

Timothy Mulcahy, University vice president for research, said the images appear similar, but the University is reserving judgment until an investigation is completed.

“Admittedly, if you look at it quickly, they could be the same, and they may be,” he said. “And if they are, it begs the question how the same figure got used representing three different things of three different natures.”

After being contacted by the magazine March 7, the University is looking into the matter, Mulcahy said.

The inquiry’s focus will be to determine if there is any evidence of academic misconduct and could take anywhere from a few weeks to several months to complete.

“We are being completely objective in this, so at this time we’re not presuming one thing or another,” Mulcahy said. “We’re simply saying let’s look at the facts and let the facts speak for themselves.”

This latest incident comes on the heels of another University investigation that wrapped up last August, involving problems found in papers published in the journals Nature and Experimental Hematology, which New Scientist also uncovered.

In that instance, a panel reviewed the papers and found no evidence of foul play, but did conclude the studies’ methods to be “significantly flawed,” calling into question the results.

Despite so many uncertainties raised in such a short time, the vice president said he doesn’t believe it will seriously damage the research reputation of the Stem Cell Institute or the University.

“In the long run, how we handle this at the University is actually going to enhance the University’s reputation,” he said.

Timothy Kamp, embryonic stem cell researcher and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of medicine, said although he is disappointed to hear about the newest questions, he doesn’t believe they will severely taint Minnesota’s name.

“It’s a bit of a black eye, but it’s certainly not going to shut things down,” Kamp said. “It’s a strong program, and there are many good investigators there, including Verfaillie.

“I’ve met Dr. Verfaillie on several occasions and she’s always impressed me as an astute investigator,” he said.

Kamp and Mulcahy each said he doesn’t believe these isolated incidents will drastically set back the entire field of adult stem cell research.

“There’s always controversy in science Ö it’s not unique to the stem cell field,” Kamp said.

Eleanore Tapscott, the director of publishing for the American Society of Hemotology, the printer of Blood, said the organization is aware of the new questions raised about the 2001 paper, and the organization plans to open its own investigation on the issue.