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ORI finds new scientific misconduct cases

Erin Podolak

A cancer researcher at Vanderbilt University and an immunologist at the Medical College of Georgia were found to have falsified and misrepresented data.

The Office of Research Integrity (ORI) of the US Department of Health and Human Services has taken action against cancer researcher Nagendra S. Ningaraj of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine (VUSM) and immunologist Zhong Bin Deng of the Medical College of Georgia (MCG). An ORI investigation concluded that Ningaraj tampered with data and falsified images in a poster presentation at an American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) conference in 2005 and in several grant applications to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI). A separate ORI investigation found that Deng falsified research on the regulating factors of autoimmune disease, which was published in Nature Medicine in 2006. Deng's research was supported by grants from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) and the NIH.

Reversed MALDI-MS images
Ningaraj, former associate professor of neurological surgery and cancer biology at VUSM, was under investigation by VUSM and the Division of Investigative Oversight, the ORI office that monitors institutional responses to allegations of misconduct in publically funded research. In its review, the ORI found that Ningaraj falsified MALDI-MS images and mass spectral tracings and associated text in grant application U54 CA119421-01 and MALDI-MS images at the AACR meeting. Specifically, Ningaraj reversed the images for the control and minoxidil-treated brains in Figure 21 of the grant, claiming that minoxidil increased delivery of Gleevec to the tumor by nearly eight times. Ningaraj reversed the same images at the AACR meeting. According to the ORI, Ningaraj reported mass spectral tracings had been obtained from brain tumors in Gleevec-treated mice that had been pretreated with minoxidil. In reality, the brain tumors were pretreated with the potassium channel opener NS1619. Ningaraji failed to report that the images and spectra in the figure were actually obtained in entirely different experiments performed on different dates with different K+ agonist pretreatments.

Beginning Aug. 31, 2009, for a period of three years, the ORI has prohibited Ningaraji from serving in any advisory capacity to the Public Health Service (PHS). Any institution that hires Ningaraji for research supported in any way by the PHS must submit a plan to the ORI for how he will be monitored and his findings checked for accuracy. Ningaraji has also pledged that any institution employing him will submit a certification that his data is corrected and based on actual experiments for any PHS-funded research.

False flow cytometry plots
The ORI also has found that immunologist Zhong Bin Deng, a former postdoctoral fellow at MCG, falsified data in the paper, “The autoimmune regulator (Aire) controls iNKT cell development and maturation,” in Nature Medicine in 2006. According to the ORI, Deng has admitted falsifying data and expressed remorse. Based an investigation by the MCG and analysis by the ORI, Deng falsified multiple thymus, liver, and bone marrow flow cytometry plots, altering them to disguise their origins.

Beginning on Oct. 2, 2009, for a period of two years, Deng is barred from serving the PHS in any capacity. Any institution that hires Deng will also have to submit a plan for supervision of his duties to the ORI. If he becomes involved with any research funded by PHS, Deng must provide certification to ORI that data is based on actual experiments.