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In vino non veritas? Red wine researcher implicated in misconduct case

A three-year investigation into a University of Connecticut biology laboratory has found its chief guilty of falsifying and fabricating data on more than two dozen papers and grant applications.

Dipak Das, director of the Cardiovascular Research Center at the University of Connecticut Health Center (UCHC) in Farmington, and his lab studied the beneficial health effects of wine (including one component resveratrol, which has been linked to life extension and other health benefits) and other foods, as well as cardiology.

A 60,000-page report issued yesterday (you can read a 49-page summary here) by UCHC found Das guilty of 145 counts of fabrication and falsification of data, involving at least 23 papers and 3 grant applications. The alleged misconduct involved manipulating the presentation of experiments called western blots, which assess the presence and amounts of specific proteins. The report documents dozens of instances in published papers where protein bands from separate experiments were spliced and pasted together to suggest that they had been measured in the same experiment.

The UCHC investigation began after the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) notified the university, in November 2008, of a complaint involving a paper published by Das’s laboratory. UCHC began its investigation in January 2009. The ORI is conducting its own investigation, according to a University of Connecticut press release.

UCHC has frozen externally funded research in Das’s lab, and it turned away US$890,000 in federal grants while the investigation was underway. The university has also begun proceedings to fire Das.

The report focuses on Das’s role in the alleged misconduct, but the university is also looking into the roles of graduate students and other former members of the laboratory. The report notes that two doctoral theses from former graduate students contain “anomalies” and “problematic images”. The report notes that during the investigation, members of Das’s lab said that there was nothing wrong with digitally manipulating western-blot images. The report cites e-mail exchanges between Das and lab members documenting data manipulation, and in one e-mail to Das, a student in the lab wrote: “I have changed the figures as you told me.”

But the report also notes that only certain members of Das’s lab conducted biochemical work and data analysis, while others performed different tasks. “This type of compartmentalization of research effort increases the opportunity that research misconduct might not be detected by other authors and could potentially lead to blame falling, unfairly, on other authors.”

In a June 2010 letter included as evidence in the report (and posted by the Chronicle of Higher Education), Das denied that he modified the western-blot images and accused the university of racial discrimination. He also complained that stress caused by the investigation had caused him to suffer a stroke.

Das has not yet responded to an e-mail from Nature, but Retraction Watch posted a bizarre press release this morning that the blog says it received on Das’s behalf. The release denies the allegations of data manipulation and again suggests that the investigation is racially motivated. The release goes on to say that the unnamed informant who turned Das in was a “troublemaker” who worked in the laboratory. The statement claims that the informant attempted to pour wine down the throat of another worker in the laboratory in an effort to get the worker to disparage Das.

Although some of Das’s papers documenting the benefits of chemicals in wine have been cited hundreds of times, other researchers who study ageing and the effects of resveratrol downplayed the significance of his work.

“Today I had to look up who he is. His papers are mostly in specialty journals,” Harvard Medical School’s David Sinclair told the New York Times. Nir Barzilai, a resveratrol researcher at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, told the AP that the allegations will not have a significant impact on resveratrol research.

Das’ research has appeared in journals such as the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry and Free Radical Research. No papers have been retracted, but UCHC says that it has notified the journals in which Das’s team published papers containing figures that were allegedly manipulated.

Image of Dipak Das via University of Connecticut

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  1. Report this comment

    Bill Sardi said:

    TIPS & ASSOCIATES
    A T T O R N E Y S A T L A W

    One Sansome Street, Suite 3670
    San Francisco, CA 94104 USA
    415-244-1813

    January 25, 2012

    Online Document Reveals U. CONN Researcher Refuted All Charges of Scientific Fraud Over 18 Months Ago
    Researcher Alleges University Destroyed All Evidence That Would Exonerate Him

    Discovery of an online document involving allegations against a University of Connecticut Health Center researcher accused of scientific fraud reveals a long-standing internal battle between the accused researcher and an administrative physician at the institution that may have resulted in false allegations being generated. That document reveals the following:

    1. Dr. Dipak Das, PhD, the accused, contends that all of the original documents involving 42 years of research, which includes images of tests known as western blots, were confiscated by a representative of the university and were destroyed. These original raw western blot images, which would serve to completely exonerate Dr. Das, are no longer available for comparison with altered images that were later published in scientific journals. This same antagonist within the university proceeded to write hundreds of letters to scientific journals and funding sources, says Dr. Das, making false allegations that “I made up all the western blot tests.”

    2. Once the original images were destroyed and could not be used for comparison in his defense, the university chose to employ software that can detect alterations to graphic images, software that has a high rate of false-positives and is not considered reliable unless original images are available for comparison purposes. Dr. Das says: “No one will use this software on the published paper unless originals are NOT available.”

    3. Moreover, the University of Connecticut’s 60,000 page damning report which accuses him of altering images in order to fraudulently gain research grant money. Dr. Das is an eminent scientist who was pre-funded by the National Institutes of Health and did not have to publish to gain grant money. He therefore lacked any financial motive whatsoever to falsify images.

    4. Dr. Das indicates, in this retrieved online document, that he never personally performed any of these western blot tests that are now in question and that the person who performed most of these tests is retired and surprisingly not on the list of researchers accused of submitting fraudulent data to scientific journals.

    5. Dr. Das then proceeded to examine the work of others in his laboratory and found their work to be “99% correct.” Dr. Das is considered an expert in reviewing research papers and had been requested to review western blot tests for various scientific journals.
    6. Contrary to what the University of Connecticut report contends, Dr. Das was not the only person who had keys to his office and that many other students and post-doctorates had access to his computer to enter results of experiments they conducted.

    7. Dr. Das categorically denies, as the university pejoratively alleges, that he “de-funded” a student because she did not produce the test results he demanded. Dr. Das only took her off of his budget because she was working exclusively for another researcher.

    8. The 60,000-page report describing the alleged scientific misconduct by Dr. Das, while only recently released to the public to put him on trial in the court of public opinion, was produced sometime in 2010; but it is unclear whether Dr. Das ever had an opportunity to even view it in its totality because he could not download it onto his computer because of its large size.

    9. The allegations against Dr. Das and his East-Indian colleagues began with a change in the administration at the university and for unknown reasons curiously only focuses on East-Indian researchers when researchers of other ethnic origins performed most of the tests now in question.

    Because of the seriousness of the charges and the fact they involve federally funded research studies, and the possibility that tissue samples as well as test data may have been intentionally destroyed by the University, it appears federal investigators need to intervene as quickly as possible.

  2. Report this comment

    Bill Sardi said:

    For Immediate Release

    Red Wine Molecule Researcher Files Million Defamation Claim Against University of Connecticut Health Center

    Hartford, CT (Jan 20, 2013)- Noted red wine molecule heart researcher Dipak Das PhD has filed a million defamation claim against the University of Connecticut (U CONN) Health Center for wrongful termination, violation of the university’s by-laws, and lack of due process as protected by the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution.

    Dr. Das made worldwide headlines in January of 2012 when U CONN authorities issued a press release and posted a website alleging 145 claims of scientific fraud that were backed by 60,000 pages of evidence. However, that website was quickly taken offline after many of its allegations were publicly rebutted. Soon thereafter, it came to light that the university’s review board had never read the entire report and has instead relied upon a 23-page summary in its decision to dismiss Dr. Das from his position as director of the Cardiovascular Research Center at the UCONN Health Center.

    Dr. Das conducted landmark animal studies that demonstrated the red wine molecule resveratrol (rez-vair-ah-troll) can limit damage to the animal heart during a heart attack and turn a mortal heart attack into a non-mortal event.

    Despite the fact Dr. Das’ research had been duplicated and verified by other researchers, university authorities alleged Dr. Das had fabricated all of his research in order to fraudulently obtain research grant money. Thereafter radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh brashly claimed on air that Dr. Das “made it all up,” that there was no valid evidence to show resveratrol prevented mortal heart attacks. Sales of resveratrol pills tumbled in the aftermath.

    Specifically, U CONN Health Center authorities claimed Dr. Das had altered images showing the production of gene-derived proteins (called a western blot image). But alteration of these images would only change understanding of the underlying genetic mechanisms involved in Dr. Das’ experiments, not the conclusions of his studies which showed unequivocal ability of resveratrol to protect the heart prior to and during a heart attack.

    Dr. Das conducted one experiment in his animal laboratory where he submitted tissue samples to National Institutes of Health researchers for a more advanced method of genetic analysis called microRNA. That microRNA analysis corroborated with Dr. Das’ western blot data and fully validated his research, but this fact was never considered by the U CONN Health Center review board. That study was published in a peer-reviewed journal (PLoS ONE) and can still be viewed online as it hasn’t been retracted like many of his other research papers.

    A U CONN Health Center press release stated that university authorities were working closely with the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI) throughout its entire investigation and said it had sent its complete report to the ORI for an independent investigation. But Dr. Das’ legal counsel asserts that U CONN Health Center had never submitted any such report to the ORI. In fact, third parties who came to the defense of Dr. Das appealed for the ORI to conduct an independent examination in order to clear Dr. Das’ name of these false allegations.

    U CONN Health Center apparently depended upon a computerized analysis to come to its conclusion that Dr. Das had fabricated western blot images, but there is criticism that these computer programs are not flawless in their analysis. Oddly, U CONN Health Center authorities could not produce the sole evidence disc against Dr. Das — the computer hard drive U CONN seized from his office — saying it had been lost, thus leaving him with no way to adequately defend the allegations against him.

    U CONN Health Center authorities have subsequently conducted a vendetta against Dr. Das, contacting at least eleven scientific journals so far to request his published papers be retracted.

    Dr. Das’ complaint claims U CONN Health Center dismissed him before the official investigation against him was completed and then denied him opportunity to present contrary evidence or testimony by expert witnesses, in violation of the right to due process under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
    One of the dramatic claims U CONN Health Center made early on was that Dr. Das was the only person who had keys to his office where the computer was used to alter the western blot images. U CONN Health Center authorities alleged this is where Dr. Das secretly fabricated the results of his research.
    This was adamantly refuted by Dr. Das and corroborated by his former students who claim his office door was usually open and students could enter to add western blot images to his computer files at any time of day. Dr. Das’ students conducted all of the western blot tests. He had no direct hand in performing the tests.

    A more lengthy defense of Dr. Das’ research can be found here and here.

    The claim has been filed with the Office Of The Claims Commissioner for the State of Connecticut and is not subject to sovereign immunity as it is asserted the university terminated Dr. Das in excess of its statutory authority. ####
    Legal counsel for Dipak Das:
    Scott Tips
    TIPS & ASSOCIATES
    One Sansom Street, Suite 3670
    SAN FRANCISCO, CA 94104
    415 244 1813
    Local Connecticut counsel: J. William Gagne, Jr

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