University of Minnesota stem cell research used flawed, falsified data

A display on adult stem cells, here at the SMM: In fact, this exhibit features Catherine Verfaillie herself.    (Good looking out, BK)
A display on adult stem cells, here at the SMM: In fact, this exhibit features Catherine Verfaillie herself. (Good looking out, BK)Courtesy bryankennedy
Following the results of an evaluation by a panel of experts at the University of Minnesota, the magazine New Scientist published an article last week announcing that some of the data used in a groundbreaking study on adult stem cells had been falsified.

The study, performed at the University of Minnesota under the supervision of Catherine Verfaillie, is part of a line of research that seemed to indicate that adult stem cells, taken from bone marrow, are pluripotent—that is that they have the potential to develop into any type of cell. Previously, only embryonic stem cells were thought to be pluripotent, and Verfaillie’s research looked like it could eventually offer an alternative to the ethically complicated use of embryonic cells for research (which requires the destruction of an embryo).

Unfortunately, other scientists had trouble replicating Verfaillie’s results, which were published in the journal Nature. New Scientist began examining the research done by Verfaillie and her team, and found that key images in the research appeared several times in papers for different experiments, and, in the case of a related study in the publication Blood, were used twice in the same paper, but had been visually altered slightly, and flipped 180 degrees. New Scientist reported their findings to the University, which began a formal investigation of the matter.

The University just recently completed the investigation, and found that data in the blood article had indeed been falsified (the images in particular), by a former PhD student of Verfaillies’, Morayma Reyes. The University and Catherine Verfaillie have asked Blood to redact the study.

Verfaillie has stated that she was unaware of the problems with the published study, and while she didn’t believe that the data was deliberately falsified, she takes ultimate responsibility for the errors.

Reyes, who now works as an assistant professor at the University of Washington, denies that the images represent deliberately altered data, and blames the errors on inadequate supervision and training. She claims that she had neither the equipment (photo editing software) nor knowledge required to alter the images. The differences in the reoccurring images were likely the result of the inadvertent use of the image adjusting tools built into lab equipment, she says, and the duplication of a figure within the Blood paper was accidental. Reyes also feels that she has been treated unfairly by the University, and that the expert panel in the investigation demonstrated a clear “lack of expertise” in the field of stem cell biology.

Reyes’ full position can be read here. The University’s response can be found here.

The altered images, Reyes asserts, shouldn’t change the results of the paper, but the whole incident brings up some interesting issues on the process of vetting science. While the errors in the paper never should have made it past Verfaillie and the rest of her team, the process of peer review should have caught them anyway. Generally, before research is published in a scientific journal, the editors select several scientists in the particular field of the paper to evaluate and comment (often anonymously) on the paper. The review panel is meant to confirm that the methodology of the experiments and the interpretation of the results are sound. Research can then be recommended (or not) for publication.

Publishing research essentially formally submits it to the scientific community, and it’s common for other scientists to attempt to replicate experiments, especially if a study makes particularly striking claims (like adult stem cells being pluripotent). The work of other scientists in replicating results is, obviously, essential to the scientific method—in this case is was what finally drew attention to some of the irregularities in Verfaillie’s team’s work.

Reproducibility can be a tricky thing, though—difficulty in repeating results doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t reproducible. (Here’s a good article on repeating and reproducing results.) But the problems in reproducing these results drew attention to the questionable data, which brought up another aspect of scientific vetting: the University’s investigation into academic misconduct. If the problems with reproducibility seem to come from data being changed, added, or omitted to strengthen a conclusion, then there could be a serious problem. This sort of misconduct undermines scientific progress, and can call into question the reputation of the institution it came out of and the validity of other research performed there. And if Morayma Reyes seems a little extra defensive in her letter, it’s understandable, because being accused of academic misconduct is a big deal, and no good for your career and future work.

The subject of the research further complicates the situation—this isn’t the first time issues of academic dishonesty have come up with regards to stem cell research. In 2006, a Korean scientist’s claims that he had cloned human embryos (thereby eliminating the need to destroy new embryos for stem cells) turned out to be based on lies. There’s a fear that the potentially huge medical payoff of stem cell research, as well as the ethical debate surrounding the use of human embryonic stem cells, could lead to science that is less than completely thorough, or even situations like the Korean controversy. And that’s bad for science in general. There’s also the thought that errors that are unintentional (as may be the case with Reyes’ images) could be the result of “pathological science,” where results are steered in a particular direction by scientists because of “subjective effects, wishful thinking, or threshold interactions.” It doesn’t have the same ethical problems, but pathological results aren’t a whole lot better for science than straight-out misconduct, and it’s a serious potential pitfall with the benefits of stem cell research waiting out there as temptations.

So there you go. It looks like things are, for the most part, being handled appropriately in this situation, but it’s an interesting window into scientific process.

Any thoughts? Does it seem like the vetting process of science is lacking in some way? Or is it maybe too thorough? Professor Reyes, I imagine, would argue that too much has been made of this situation, and there are many who argue that the process of peer review limits the communication and dissemination of scientific ideas.

Or, even better, does it seem like I got something wrong here?

Let’s have it, Buzzketeers.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

MichelleDenoi's picture
MichelleDenoi says:

I don't think that it was done on purpose, but the whole thing does lack in professionalism. However, it should be just a lesson learned and a step ahead, for the world needs desperately someone who won't give up at the first fail.

posted on Thu, 03/11/2010 - 2:45pm
realstemcells's picture
realstemcells says:

Verfaillie is an example of what ails science in general and stem cells in particular today. Her work was sloppy at best and very likely fraudulent. The total inabiltiy by leading scientitists like Stu Orkin at Harvard of Rudolf Jaenisch at MIT speaks volumes of how bunk the observations were. And which credible scientist would leave the large research empire at MN and go back to a hole in the wall university in Beligium ? The sad part though is that she had made so much of power and connections during her "ride" on MAPCs that even senior scientists are afraid to call her bluff. Diane Krause of Yale, another "transdifferentiation guru" whose work is also not replicable calls Verfaillie " an impeccable scientist". REally ? any one with half a neuron who has read through all the fabrications/ retractions etc from Verfaillie's lab could not say that. And Verfaillie's connections continue to the day. She is reviewing grants for the california stem cells institute and is editor for PLOS. Just leads one to conclude - fraudulent research pays if you are well connected.

posted on Wed, 09/01/2010 - 10:51am
Alec Szabo's picture
Alec Szabo says:

While still a student, a mistake made on the part of Dr. Reyes and all these years later amzingly, she still faces punishment to the point where certain individuals want to smash her. Others have been crushed under an Oppresive University System. No matter what is presented and as they proclaim innocence, that they are ruined after years of positive work over one mistake that a Panel made up mostly of Federal Politician types can make a judgement that could cost a person a career. One has to wonder what motivating forces were seeking to destroy Dr. Reyes, jealousy perhaps that a Latina Woman was pulling ahead of others? Is this tantamount to the Salem Witch Hunts were a Woman could be accused of being a Witch? When put into the water strapped to a chair, if she drowns she is innocent, if she floats or survives the drowning she must be burned to death..thereby You Cannot Win. Under the current University System..you are Accused YEARS LATER, and your Career Could Be Put To Death. I call out the Universities here and now and Challenge you to Review your findings of all who were Ruined by a mistake and besides Dr. Reyes, ALL the others are owed another chance. You are always crowing about the need for Doctors and Scientists when seeking taxpayer Dollars, maybe you should include the caveat, "But We Can Ruin You At Anytime We See Fit". And maybe also, "There Will Be Others Who If They Feel The Need Can Try And Find Anything They Can And Use it Against You." But in the meantime, if you are Tenured,and or well connected, you are ok. Its a Real Shame that these educated valuable Individuals with so much to offer should be relegated to a scrap heap because of of all this I have mentioned. Maybe the Universitys of America's Mottos should all be changed to: Abondon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.

posted on Fri, 02/04/2011 - 1:59am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Why is there no challenege to the University? And why is Dr. Reyes not afforded the opportunity to continue without constant reprisal?

posted on Mon, 02/07/2011 - 12:10pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

I'm posting on behalf of Morayma Reyes, and, with her permission, quoting from an E-mail she sent me:

"The Office of Research Integrity (ORI) has determined to administratively close this case and not propose separate U.S. Public Health Service findings or administrative actions."

morayma_reyes AT yahoo.com

posted on Mon, 07/07/2014 - 1:36pm

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