By Margaret Munro CanWest News Service
A scientific nightmare has been quietly unfolding at the University of Alberta, where a research technician deliberately falsified his own experiments and then tried to cover his tracks by altering his colleagues’ work, U.S. authorities say.
The fraud was so clever that the team of researchers, including several graduate students and PhDs, thought they were on to a major discovery and published the falsified results in a leading scientific journal. They later learned their experiments had been sabotaged by one of their own.
Technician Jianhua (James) Xu engaged in “significant” scientific misconduct, says a report by the U.S. Office of Research Integrity obtained by CanWest News Service. Xu was fired by the U of A for the misconduct, which destroyed years of research work and led to the retraction of a major research paper by the Edmonton research team.
Xu has also entered into a Voluntary Exclusion Agreement with U.S. authorities in which he has agreed for four years, beginning Nov. 10, 2003, to exclude himself from “contracting or subcontracting” with any agency of the U.S. government.
Canadian research authorities and the University of Alberta have said nothing publicly about the case. But U.S. officials, who have a formal process that names researchers undermining the integrity of science, say Xu “committed scientific misconduct by deliberately falsifying experiments” at the U of A. The tainted work was part of a project funded by the U.S. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research, and Medical Research Council, now known as Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
The falsification began in 1998, shortly after Xu began working for Dr. David Brindley, an award-winning biochemist at the University of Alberta. Xu had arrived with glowing recommendations from Northwestern University in Illinois, where he had completed master’s degree. He was soon an integral member of Brindley’s team exploring the biochemical controls at work inside cells. The team hoped to find potent molecules to help speed wound repair, regenerate damaged corneas and perhaps even curb growth of cancerous cells.
According to the U.S. authorities, Xu decided to clandestinely add a little something extra to the experiments – a potent chemical inhibitor called vanadate.
The other members of the research team, unaware of Xu’s deceit, were excited when they saw his data. They wrote up the results of one set of the fraudulent experiments in a 10-page report, complete with graphs and tables, published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry in 2000. Ten of Xu’s colleagues, including Brindley, put their names on the research report, with Xu as first author.
The team believed Xu’s “discovery” was so important that it ran more experiments and wrote up additional papers before it became evident the results were proving hard to to duplicate. Suspicion fell on Xu while he was away on an extended vacation.
Proving the fraud was difficult. The university undertook a sleuthing operation that involved videotaping Xu making late-night laboratory entries and tampering with experiments. The U of A confronted Xu with the evidence and fired him in late 2000, although it took three years for the case to work its way through the legal and disciplinary process.
“According to Mr. Xu,” says the U.S. report, “his motivation for falsifying experimental results was the wish to obtain exciting, desirable results which would win him the approval and praise of “XXX.”
“XXX” is unidentified in the report to protect confidentiality.
In an “admission statement” on March 23, 2003, Xu said “the falsification consisted of the addition of vanadate to tubes containing certain substances.” The experiments he doctored purported to show the inhibition triggered by the vanadate was the result of adding natural compounds.
“In order to cover up my initial falsification, I also falsified the experiments of others who were doing related experiments,” Xu said in the statement. “I only falsified these subsequent experiments to the extent necessary to cover up the original falsification and did not falsify any other experiments.”
“Basically he sabotaged other people’s work,” says Dr. Alan Price, an official with the U.S. Office of Research Integrity, which concluded last December that Xu had engaged in scientific misconduct.
Xu could not be found to comment for this story.
The Journal of Biological Chemistry, published at Stanford University by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, issued a retraction of the University of Alberta team’s falsified paper in September. “We regret to report that some results in this paper have been found to be non-reproducible, and therefore, the paper is retracted,” the one-line retraction said. It points readers to the Office of Research Integrity for more information.
A second manuscript, which was submitted for publication in the high-profile journal Cell, was withdrawn when Brindley discovered what Xu had done. Several other papers and grant proposals – representing years of work by Brindley’s team of 10 researchers and graduate students – were also scrapped.
“My whole lab was chasing something that didn’t exist,” says Brindley, who says he is slowly putting the ordeal behind him.
He and his graduate students have spent much of the last two years salvaging their research program and scientific reputations. “It’s been a nightmare, and we lived through it,” says Brindley.
Dr. Lorne Tyrrell, Dean of Medicine and Dentistry at University of Alberta, commends Brindley for bringing the problem to his attention as soon as he discovered Xu was falsifying results. “I think David Brindley did everything he possibly could right,” says Tyrrell. “Here’s an investigator who, when a problem arose, did everything he should have done properly.”
But the fallout continues. Brindley’s team was recently turned down for a federal research grant, says Tyrrell, who feels the Xu case “might have been a factor” in the funding decision. “He’s (Dr. Brindley’s) paid a big price,” says Tyrrell.
While the University of Alberta did not bring the case to public attention, Tyrrell stresses the university was quick to launch an internal investigation and report the problem to Canadian and U.S. agencies that paid for the research Xu had worked on. The public was not informed because there is no formal mechanism in Canada for such reporting, say university officials.
Tyrrell agrees it is odd to have U.S. agencies informing the public about problems with Canadian research, and suggests Canadian research agencies might want to adopt a more open policy. “I believe in transparency,” says Tyrrell.
Price said in an interview he is satisfied the University of Alberta misconduct was limited to Xu, and he credited the university for admitting to the problem.
Xu is now “out of science” and into the world of business, says Price. He says the University of Alberta, as part of its settlement, allowed Xu to complete his Masters of Business Administration. University officials will not comment, saying the settlement agreement with Xu is confidential.
A resume Xu posted on the U of A website in 2001 while he was completing his MBA says he spent three years as a lieutenant in the Chinese army before getting a science degree in China. He then moved to Illinois for a master’s degree before moving to Alberta. Xu’s resume makes no mention of his stint in Brindley’s lab, but says he was one of the top salesmen in Edmonton for Impact marketing and Rogers AT&T wireless in December of 2000.
Xu’s falsified experiments are the second case of scientific dishonesty recently uncovered in Alberta. A physician, identified only as Dr. A03, was disciplined last year by Alberta’s College of Physicians and Surgeons for fabricating information about his research activities.
The college fined Dr. A03 $18,584.68 and handed him a two-week suspension for being “untruthful” about potential conflicts of interests and citing “incorrect and/or non-existent journal citations” on his scientific publication record.
“The council viewed these behaviours as indicative of professional and academic/scientific dishonesty,” the college said in a report published in its newsletter last year. It did not identify Dr. A03, saying only that as a result of his actions he “lost both teaching and research careers.”
Sources say the doctor was a medical geneticist at the University of Calgary, who resigned abruptly after he was confronted about falsifying information. Dr. A03 is believed to be practising medicine in Calgary.