Mount Sinai Says Misconduct by Postdocs Led to Retraction of Gene Therapy Papers

Earlier this week, the blog Retraction Watch called attention to four recent paper retractions by noted gene therapy researcher Savio Woo of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. Today, the school said in a statement that two of Woo's postdoctoral fellows have been fired for research misconduct and that an internal investigation has cleared Woo of any wrongdoing.

Read more, including the full text of the statement, after the jump.

The four papers in question focus on two different areas of gene therapy research. One pair, published in 2008 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute and in 2009 in Human Gene Therapy, investigate genetically engineered bacteria as a weapon against cancer. The other two papers describe a method for using bacterial enzymes to introduce therapeutic genes. A 2005 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports experiments in which mice with the metabolic disorder phenylketonuria appeared to be cured using this method. As a demonstration of the promise of gene therapy, that work garnered some media coverage, including this article in Science. A 2008 paper in Human Gene Therapy described the use of the technique in human cells.

The statement from Mount Sinai explains what went wrong in broad strokes:

When Dr. Savio L C Woo came to suspect that two post-doctoral fellows in his laboratory may have engaged in research misconduct he notified the Mount Sinai Research Integrity Office. Mount Sinai immediately initiated institutional reviews that resulted in both post-doctoral fellows being dismissed for research misconduct. At no time were there allegations that Dr. Woo had engaged in research misconduct. As part of its review, the investigation committee looked into this possibility and confirmed that no research misconduct could be attributed to Dr. Woo, who voluntarily retracted the papers regarding the research in question. Mount Sinai reported the results of its investigations to the appropriate government agencies and continues to cooperate with them as part of its commitment to adhere to the highest standards for research integrity.

Mount Sinai spokesperson Ian Michaels says the school conducted two separate investigations into two postdocs and their research. Michaels declined to name them, but the process of elimination suggests that they are the two first authors on the four papers. Li Chen is the first author and the only author besides Woo on the bacterial enzyme papers; Zhiyu Li is the first author on the cancer-fighting bacteria papers and the only author on those papers who is not a faculty member at Mount Sinai. Of all the authors on the four papers, Chen and Li are the only ones not currently listed in the Mount Sinai directory. Neither could be immediately reached for comment on Friday.