Tuesday, August 11, 2009

CIRM Grant Reviewer Verfaillie Linked to Investigations in Minnesota

A internationally known stem cell researcher who serves as a grant reviewer for the $3 billion California stem cell agency is at the heart of an inquiry at the University of Minnesota concerning the integrity of some of its stem cell research.

The matter involves Catherine Verfaillie (pictured) and New Scientist magazine, which raised concerns about the research. Verfaille is currently listed on the CIRM Web site as one of the scientists who make de facto decisions on research grant applications for hundreds of millions of dollars from the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine.

We queried CIRM two days ago about Verfaillie but the agency has not responded.

The research inquiries at the University of Minnesota involve scientists who worked in Verfaillie's lab or who were affiliated with her. She is now working at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium but is still associated with the University of Minnesota. New Scientist once described her as running “one of highest-profile teams in stem-cell biology.”

Here is how Chris Williams of The Associated Press began his story last week on the research investigation,
“The University of Minnesota has launched its third internal investigation in two years into allegations of research misconduct....”
Jeremy Olson of the St. Paul Pioner Press wrote,
“In a familiar pattern, reporters from New Scientist magazine found images in a published study that appeared questionable and alerted U officials.

“The university already has retracted one stem cell study and corrected two others because of concerns raised by New Scientist. Having to launch yet another inquiry is an embarrassment for a university that has been viewed as a global expert in stem cell research....”
Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said that the Minnesota case has implications that go beyond one researcher or institution.

According to reporter Williams,
"'What's unusual here is that you're starting to get other people involved," (Caplan) said. 'It's become a problem of a group, not an individual.'"
Williams continued,
“The Minnesota situation is also unusual, Caplan said, in that its researchers have been getting special scrutiny from New Scientist. He suspects there would be more questions of sloppiness or fraud at other universities if more outsiders were watching.

“There is particular pressure on scientists working in the stem cell field, with its mix of politics, the prestige of breakthroughs and the potential profits from patents.

"'I really can't think of too many areas that are more set up for somebody to cut corners than stem cell work,' he said.”
Peter Aldous and Eugenie Samuel Reich have been investigating the work at the University of Minnesota over several years. Their most recent piece on Aug. 5 said,
“Other stem cell biologists are disturbed that so many problems have been found in papers from a single institution. 'It's pretty discouraging," says Arnold Kriegstein of the University of California, San Francisco. Given the pressure on scientists in such competitive fields, he wonders what might emerge at other research centres if their publications were subjected to similarly close scrutiny.

"'It raises serious issues about how widespread this could be,' he says."
Aldous and Reich's Aug. 5 article has a full rundown on the cases they have investigated. Sphere: Related Content


  1. Anonymous10:00 PM

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  2. Anonymous5:08 AM

    Verfaille's work has been criticized for the difficulty others have had repeating it. While I don't think this fact represents outright fraud, it points to the fact that this work is complex, variable, hard to control and at the time of the work in question, was politically charged. Things that should be repeated and investigated further aren't. We see it in all aspects of stem cell science. I would speculate that there are probably several iPS studies that shouldn't have yet seen the light of day, for example.

    There is increasing pressure for the headliners to maintain their position and some of the lab staff respond inappropriately. I imagine they just "know" how it "should" look.

    The power assures an easier time publishing (obviously), good positions for everyone from the lab, and more grant money, much more. Things get too big and the lab chief loses touch.

    Verfaille's MN work has been licensed to a company. It would be interesting to know what they think of this.

    As for CIRM, if Verfaille truly is that competitive and unscrupulous to knowingly allow multiple instances of data finagling to come from her lab, then she shouldn't be privy to the information in CIRM grants. CIRM may need to be even more vigilant not only on who sees what but on the quality of what is coming out of the CIRM money. If the study really should be repeated, CIRM might best serve the field by encourgaging researchers to repeat it.

  3. Of the text --"'What's unusual here is that you're starting to get other people involved" --, one can only wonder "where" the speaker was during the Hwang Woo Suk affair, which involved several people, including a researcher who went from Hwang's lab to Schatten's lab, and who was responsible for part of the fraud. Unmentioned in the stemcellreport was the fact that Verfaille's MN work involved ADULT stem cells (and possible manipulation of photographs thereof) while Hwang's Korean work involved EMBRYONIC stem cells, and BOTH manipulation of photos AND complete fabrication of results, a more serious problem, harkening back to Jan-Hendrik Schon. Both the Hwang and Verfaille matters involve patent applications. As a general matter, "inequitable conduct" is brought up in litigations, not prosecutions, and a finding of inequitable conduct can have adverse consequences. HOWEVER, the Federal Circuit recently strengthened pleading standards, making it more difficult to assert charges of inequitable conduct. [See
    NLJ story mangles analysis of Exergen case?
    Of patent angles in the Verfaille matter, see

    Patent applications involved in Verfaillie matter
    . Both the stemcellpost and the comment miss a significant point: fraud and bad science in areas such as stem cells can take place because the entire relevant community has an interest in seeing the the area move forward, with more investment. As was pointed out in 88 J. Pat. & Trademark Off. Soc'y [JPTOS] 239 (March 2006) [which details the Hwang fraud] :
    The failure of editors and referees of the journal Science to detect the fraud in manuscripts of Woo Suk Hwang prior to publication, and the
    widespread acceptance of the work after publication, illustrates some difficulties
    in relying on peer review to authenticate the validity of scientific work.

  4. Anonymous11:52 PM

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