Red-wine researcher charged with photo-editing fraud

January 13, 2012

Storrs, CT - A University of Connecticut researcher known for touting the health benefits of red wine is guilty of 145 counts of fabricating and falsifying data with image-editing software[1], according to a three-year university investigation made public this week.

The researcher, Dr Dipak K Das, is a director of the university's Cardiovascular Research Center (CRC) and a professor in the department of surgery. The university stated in a press release that it has frozen all externally funded research in Das's lab and turned down $890 000 in federal research grants awarded to him. The process to dismiss Das from the university is already under way, the university added.

A university special review board (SRB) found evidence of research fraud in two dozen published papers dating back to 2002 as well as three grant applications. The university said it has notified 11 journals that published the studies of its findings. The publications include the American Journal of Physiology — Heart & and Circulatory Physiology and the Journal of Molecular and Cellular Cardiology. Some of the studies asserted that a substance in red wine called resveratrol promoted heart health.

"We have a responsibility to correct the scientific record and inform peer researchers across the country," said Dr Philip Austin, interim vice president of health affairs at the University of Connecticut.

The review board findings "point to a pervasive attitude of disregard within the CRC for commonly accepted scientific practices in the publication and reporting of research data," its report stated. "Given the large number of irregularities discovered in this investigation . . . the SRB can only conclude that they were the result of intentional acts of data falsification and fabrication, designed to deceive."

The review board report stated that the US Office of Research Integrity (ORI) tipped off the university in 2008 about alleged fraud involving a 2007 article in Free Radical Biology and Medicine coauthored by Das titled "Redox regulation of resveratrol-mediated switching of death signal into survival signal." The ORI is now conducting its own investigation of Das, according to the university.

Other members of the CRC played a part in the research fraud, and they are under investigation as well.

"No resemblance to any legitimate experiment"

The exact nature of the alleged fraud involves images of "blots" obtained through gel electrophoresis that were featured in article figures. Most of the figures presented Western blots, designed for studying proteins.

Using Photoshop software as a forensic tool, the review board determined that dozens of images bore evidence of inappropriate manipulation by "photo-imaging software." The most egregious examples were pasted-up "artificial blots" that "bear no resemblance to any legitimate experiment" and represent total fabrications. The board also found examples of background erasure, image duplication, and images having been spliced together.

The board noted that splicing various blot images together can serve a legitimate purpose but that researchers must precisely describe the manipulation that they perform. Such explanations were lacking in articles coming out of Das's laboratory.

The review board report stated that as head of the lab and senior author of all but one of the tainted articles, Das "bears principal responsibility for the fabrication and/or falsification that occurred." Furthermore, the evidence "strongly suggests" that Das was directly involved in faking images for publication. Some of that evidence was pulled from his personal computer.

Accused researcher cites "racial hatred"

The report quoted Das as saying he does not know who prepared the figures that appeared in the journal articles. It stated that he has provided "no substantive information" that could explain the research irregularities.

An exhibit in the report contains what the board called Das's response to the investigation. In a document dated July 30, 2010, Das said the accusations against him are part of a campaign to rid the university health center of the "Indian community."

"I became the Devil for the Health Center, and so did all the Indians working for me," he wrote. "The evidence for conspiracy and racial hatred is overwhelming."

He also alleged that the stress of battling the university administration led to a brain hemorrhage and stroke.

No reply to an email sent to Das at his university email address has been received. A company called Resveratrol Partners, which markets a resveratrol-based dietary supplement called Longe vinex, said yesterday in a press release that "Das is attending a scientific conference in India and has not been able to respond to the allegations."

The website of Resveratrol Partners highlights some of Das's studies on the cardio benefits of resveratrol. In a press release, Resveratrol Partners managing partner Bill Sardi said that Das does not have any business relationship with the company and that other researchers have confirmed the value of Longevinex.

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