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Suspicious Paper Retracted from Global Science Journal

Posted August. 21, 2008 06:31,   


A team of domestic scientists has retracted a paper after its findings could not be reproduced.

The researchers had their paper published in the international journal Science on what they called a medical breakthrough using gene therapy.

More controversy is expected as the failure has dealt yet another blow to the global credibility of the Korean science community.

Lee Hyeon-cheol, a medical professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, and his three colleagues Tuesday asked Nature to retract their paper "Cure for Diabetes Using Gene Therapy," which was published in November 2000.

Lee, the head of the team, said in an e-mail, “Our research team has made enormous efforts to recreate our initial findings over the past eight years but failed." But he did not elaborate on the specific reasons for the failure.

“Under this circumstance, all of the paper`s co-authors want the paper to be retracted as soon as possible, and express deep regret for causing unnecessary trouble to readers.”

▽ Paper topic

The paper dealt with a new treatment for type 1 diabetes. The researchers took an important step forward in devising a way to maintain normal levels of insulin by producing a single-chain insulin analogue, or SIA.

Type 1 diabetes, formerly called insulin-dependent or juvenile diabetes, results when the pancreas loses its ability to make insulin. Lee said in the paper that gene therapy replaced the function of the pancreas.

At the time of the paper`s publication, major U.S. media paid keen attention to the breakthrough and Korean news outlets featured the alleged breakthrough. The team also won a partial subsidy from Korea`s "Brain Korea 21" project from the Education, Science and Technology Ministry. An international patent was filed for the gene therapy.

Thanks to the paper, Lee won a number of awards, including the Pfizer Special Prize for International Contributions to Medicine and Scientist of the Month from the ministry. Last year, Yonsei appointed him a chair professor eligible for 30 million won a year for research.

▽ Controversy over the paper`s reproduction

The controversy erupted when a researcher who did the original study for his dissertation moved to a think tank in Canada in 2001.

Another researcher replaced him in Korea, but he was rebuked for his repeated failures to reproduce the findings and fired in early 2006.

The dismissed researcher allegedly produced the gene but failed to reduce blood sugar levels when the gene was injected into an animal.

He refused to admit failure, however, saying, “The failure did not stem from me but from a flaw in the paper itself.”

Lee said, “The researcher requested ‘other things’ and threatened to disclose this matter if we failed to meet his demands.”

“We retracted the paper due to our failure to duplicate the findings. There was no manipulation in the paper.”

The researcher who originally carried out the study said he had no idea why reproductions failed, Lee said.

▽ Yonsei launches investigation

A Yonsei University task force since March has investigated the possibility that the paper`s findings were fabricated.

A preliminary report released Aug. 4 said, “The investigation team confirmed that the researchers failed to replicate the findings for at least the past seven years. Furthermore, the failure constitutes disqualification of the research paper since it lacks the most important element of a paper -- reproduction.”

The investigators also said certain experiment photos were found to have been manipulated.

The task force is expected to announce its final report soon after questioning Lee and the researcher who did the original study next week.