Fake photos used in embryonic stem cell research

As I write this, this is break­ing news.

A study that appeared to have impor­tant impli­ca­tions for embry­on­ic stem cell research was retract­ed from the jour­nal Sci­ence after sci­en­tists found that pho­tos in it had been faked.

The head­line in Live Mint reads: “Pho­tos found to be fake, Sci­ence retracts embry­on­ic cell study.” Not only is this shame­ful for any sci­en­tist, but in this case, it turns out that he is an Indi­an. This is not yet report­ed by Reuters, AP, or any oth­er news agency.

Live Mint requires a (free) reg­is­tra­tion, so I’m repro­duc­ing (edit­ed) con­tent here:

A probe by the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri at Colum­bia found that the paper’s first author, Kaushik Deb, doc­tored images from one cell to make it appear they had come from sev­er­al dif­fer­ent cells, said R. Michael Roberts, an ani­mal sci­ence pro­fes­sor and Deb’s super­vi­sor, in a let­ter to the jour­nal.

Sci­ence said in Octo­ber that Deb’s results, pub­lished in Feb­ru­ary 2006, might not be reli­able, and it wait­ed for the author’s retrac­tion after the uni­ver­si­ty fin­ished inves­ti­gat­ing. Sci­ence, Nature and oth­er jour­nals have been on guard against retouched pic­tures since the faked stem cell results of South Kore­an sci­en­tist Hwang Woo Suk were exposed last year.

Deb was study­ing which embry­on­ic cells become stem cells and which implant the embryo into the pla­cen­ta. His stud­ies sug­gest­ed that a pro­tein, called cdx2, marked cells involved in implan­ta­tion, sug­gest­ing that unmarked cells might be fat­ed to become stem cells.

Oth­er sci­en­tists, wary of doc­tored images after Hwang’s fak­ery, scru­ti­nized the work close­ly and deter­mined that a series of pho­tos had been altered to look as though they had come from dis­tinct cells, Roberts said.

Roberts said he didn’t expect to have to fer­ret out fraud while he was over­see­ing Deb’s work.
“He was rel­a­tive­ly inde­pen­dent; I nev­er looked over his shoul­der,” Roberts said in a tele­phone inter­view. “Sci­ence is based on trust. If you’re going to men­tor peo­ple, it’s almost impos­si­ble to look over their shoul­ders the whole time.”

Deb has resigned from the uni­ver­si­ty, and Roberts said he believes the young sci­en­tist has returned to his home in India. Deb hasn’t returned tele­phone calls, let­ters or emails, Roberts said.

Giv­en that stem cell research is already in so much con­tro­ver­sy thanks to the reli­gious right, is it wise to cre­ate fur­ther con­tro­ver­sy through fake research? Don’t these sci­en­tists have any morals or ethics or a gen­er­al under­stand­ing of what’s hap­pen­ing in soci­ety around them? And why does it have to be an Indi­an?!

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  • Mahen­dra,
    There have been sev­er­al instances of sci­en­tif­ic fraud. I am cer­tain that only a tiny per­cent­age (or, more like­ly, a frac­tion of a per­cent­age) is detect­ed, and the rest is part of main­stream sci­en­tif­ic lit­er­a­ture (hor­ri­ble thought it may sound). Even the New Eng­land Jour­nal of Med­i­cine has been a vic­tim of fraud, along with its read­ers. The bite of my ini­tial com­ment in your ‘Oscar cat’ post was exact­ly this. In the lab­o­ra­to­ry of my own mind, I may have done ALL the research, “just didn’t have time to take the pic­tures –hey, so what, just let me put in these num­bers (they don’t mat­ter any­ways)”.
    For my take on a sci­en­tif­ic paper, try this arti­cle, and this one.

  • Thanks, doc. What you’re say­ing makes it look scary!

  • This ticks me off. One of the things I cher­ish about sci­ence (or at least the great sci­en­tists that I have met) is that they nev­er hold on to a pet the­o­ry in the face of suf­fi­cient evi­dence sug­gest­ing a con­trary one. How can we uphold this ide­al if evi­dence is doc­tored. It goes against what I was taught that sci­ence should be… the pur­suit of knowl­edge about nat­ur­al phe­nom­e­na.

    I hate to be such an extrem­ist, but Deb should be sanc­tioned.

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  • Aikaterene: yes, you can see from the tone of my post how ticked off I was too! Your words mir­ror my thoughts exact­ly. And for evi­dence being ‘doc­tored’ — what an inter­est­ing pun! 🙂

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  • Adam

    sci­en­tif­ic fraud and inno­cence are too hair line difer­ences… there are sev­er­al fake, unre­pro­ducible and incom­pe­tent papers pub­lished in A grade jour­nals.. the BIG HEAVY weight boss runs off and their nexus with their friends and col­leagues gets them away.. some one like Kaushik Deb gets caught„ its no undoubt­ed­ly is bad, but try­ing to accuse one per­son and spar­ing the rest sim­ply because they are BIG SHOTS and they have a res­i­dence in the US means no sense ! thats a mock­ery

  • Xin­lu

    there was Sci­ence paper retrac­tion in last year by Yale Sci­en­tist, Richard Flavell… not a sin­gle arti­cle or press even men­tioned it ! thats fun­ny. why so mess with Deb?? its ter­ri­bly bad that he was fraud, but then Flavell paper was retract­ed due to an iden­ti­cal rea­son… fraud, why no one even write or talk about it?? is that due to strong hold over media and strong con­nec­tions that some­one escapes out and oth­ers are pros­e­cut­ed to their ulti­mate extent? It’s nasty pol­i­tics that kills every­thing and sad­ly to say, it has con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed sci­ence ter­ri­bly.

  • good

    There are peo­ple like SIR Ian Wilmut who had no con­tri­bu­tions while cloning Dol­ly but got away with the name, fame and hon­or. Every­body now knows about the Indi­an sci­en­tist (Dr. Prim Singh, who was also racial­ly dis­crim­i­nat­ed), and a bunch of oth­er sci­en­tist who have piti­tioned against Wilmut, after 10 long years.

    I am afraid this sto­ry is no dif­fer­ent!!

    I also know that Deb actu­al­ly repro­duced data in front of exter­nal pro­fes­sors. And remind you sci­ence does not go by pictures..it goes by repro­ducibil­i­ty.

    Deb should be strong­ly sup­port­ed for his work, and for what he found.