Cheaters in science

A former UCLA biologist falsified data on biomarkers and treatments for cancer in two journal articles and multiple grant applications, the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) reported last week.

According to the ORI notice, Mai Nguyen, an associate professor of surgery at UCLA from 1995-2005, falsified data published in a 2000 Oncology Reports paper, which has been cited 5 times, and a 2001 article in The Lancet, which has been cited 25 times. The papers examined the effect of Livistona chinensis, a Chinese fan palm extract, on mouse fibrosarcoma cells, and the use of basic fibroblast growth factor and vascular endothelial growth factor in nipple fluid as biomarkers for cancer, respectively.

Nguyen also fudged experiments and figures in grant applications submitted to the National Institute of Health, National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine, National Cancer Institute, and National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases grants, the ORI reported. In one NIH grant, for example, she falsified the number of experiments done and the number of animals used in studies of Livistona’s anticancer effect. In the same grant, she falsely claimed that she used a specific technique to measure uptake of radioactive thymidine.

ORI officials declined to provide further information; as part of the case’s settlement, the ORI was barred from speaking about details not included in its official report.

Roberto Peccei, Vice Chancellor for Research at UCLA, told The Scientist that he was first alerted to potential misconduct in 2000 by a former postdoc in Nguyen’s lab, Jing Liang Wang. After finding grounds for further investigation, he brought his preliminary findings to the university’s Privilege & Tenure Committee. The committee conducted a separate investigation, finding Nguyen guilty of misconduct in 2004. As a result of the findings, Nguyen was barred from conducting research for three years, but was allowed to retain her post as faculty member. She contested the committee’s findings, but the sanctions were approved in 2005, Peccei said.

“She always took the point of view that she was innocent. Ultimately she could not convince a committee of her peers,” Peccei said.

However, Nguyen and UCLA disagreed on how the ruling barring her from research should be interpreted, Peccei said. Though Nguyen closed her lab, he explained, “she understood banishment from doing research to not include publishing.” Since 2005, she has published 10 articles under her married name, Mai Brooks, continuing to collaborate with some of her coauthors on the Lancet and Oncology Reports papers. Four of her collaborators on those papers contacted by The Scientist declined to comment.

The disagreement caused Nguyen to resign in 2005. She is currently a surgical oncologist at UCLA Medical School, according to affiliations listed on the 2009 Methods in Molecular Biology review.

Peccei said the long, drawn-out nature of the case led UCLA to revise some of its policies for conducting investigations “because it was so confusing and so painful.” In the past, the Privilege and Tenure Committee both performed misconduct investigations and decided on disciplinary action, he said, but the university has since decided that the committee should not act as “both judge and jury.” Instead, misconduct investigations are now conducted through the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research; only if misconduct is found does a case go to the Privilege and Tenure Committee.

“This was not a case that went very well for anyone involved, even though there was good faith on all sides,” Peccei said.



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