Cancer Researcher Faces New Investigation for Misconduct

Roxanne Nelson, BSN, RN

March 09, 2017

Known for cutting-edge research that delved into deciphering cancer pathogenesis, Carlo Croce, MD, faces new allegations of research misconduct, according to an investigation by the New York Times.

A prolific scientist, Dr Croce is professor and chair of the Department of Molecular Virology, Immunology and Medical Genetics, as well as director of the Institute of Genetics at the Ohio State University (OSU) School of Medicine, Columbus. He is an author of more than 1000 research articles, and he is the recipient of many awards and honors. In addition, he has received more than $86 million in federal grants to fund his research.

However, allegations of misconduct and data manipulation have surrounded Dr Croce for a long time, and now OSU will be launching an independent investigation.

Dr Carlo Croce

In 2013, an anonymous whistle-blower going under the name Clare Francis contacted the university as well as federal authorities to report that more than 30 of Dr Croce's articles contained falsified data.

The university chose not to investigate. In a letter to the whistle-blower, Caroline C. Whitacre, PhD, vice president for research, explained that the Office of Research Integrity at OSU had reviewed the situation and had decided "there is no further action needed. As such, the Ohio State University considers this matter closed."

On the heels of those accusations, David A. Sanders, PhD, associate professor of biological sciences at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, criticized Dr Croce's work and made allegations of plagiarism and falsified data.

According to the Times, both federal oversight agencies and OSU never penalized Dr Croce for misconduct. The university cleared him regarding at least five cases that involved his research or grant money.

OSU stated that they were unaware of the charges made by Dr Sanders until the New York Times asked about them. The university has now said that it will revisit these allegations and determine whether the situation was handled properly.

"The university is instituting an independent external review," university spokesman Christopher Davey said in a statement to the Times.

He added that the review is not "an indication that we have discovered any evidence of scientific misconduct or other issues raised in your inquiry."

Increasing Number of Corrections

The Retraction Watch website has been keeping close tabs on Dr Croce and some of his colleagues. As a result of the complaints issued Dr Sanders and others, problems with Dr Croce's articles are being increasingly posted by journals. The number of corrections, retractions, and editors' notices have jumped to at least 20, and at least three more are forthcoming.

According to Retraction Watch, Dr Croce has logged five retractions. In addition, multiple articles of his have been questioned on PubPeer, a website that allows users to discuss and review scientific research. A number of these articles were coauthored with Alfredo Frusco, MD, an Italian cancer researcher who is currently under investigation for scientific misconduct. Nine articles of Dr Frusco's have been retracted.

Facing Decades of Accusations

Although scrutiny of Dr Croce intensified in 2013, his problems began long before that. As the New York Times reports, Dr Croce has been fielding accusations for more than 2 decades.

In the early 1990s, Dr Croce and a colleague were accused of submitting false claims for payment of grant money for research that was never conducted. This research was supposedly overseen by a scientist who had left the United States.

The case was eventually combined with a second investigation of fraud. Thomas Jefferson University, in Philadelphia, where Dr Croce was employed during this time, was forced to make a settlement of $2.6 million to the government. None of the parties involved, including Dr Croce, admitted any wrongdoing.

In 2007, the US National Institutes of Health withdrew a grant proposal submitted by Dr Croce. The basis of the withdrawal was that major sections of the proposal were essentially identical to those in a proposal submitted 4 months earlier by one of Dr Croce's junior colleagues.

A "tipster" then accused an official from Dr Croce's laboratory of using his grant money for taking personal trips overseas. That person also accused Dr Croce of improperly pressuring laboratory members to include his name on research papers. In another set of allegations, a former research colleague accused Dr Croce of scientific misconduct that involved, in addition to other issues, using that former researcher's work without credit on patents.

Dr Croce was cleared in both of those cases.

Conflict of Interest

The Times also points to the complexities faced by institutions in situations such as this one, which involves both reputations and money.

Quoted in the newspaper, Richard Smith, MD, former editor of the BMJ and a founding member of the Committee on Publication Ethics in Britain, noted that when an institution has its own reputation on the line, "there's a tremendous conflict of interest," and "there's a terrible temptation to bury it all."

Then there is the money. Dr Croce has received $29.1 million in federal funding as a principal investigator during his tenure at OSU. Of that money, $8.7 million has gone directly to the university in overhead payments, which is considered a fairly standard "cut" for research institutions.

Commenting on OSU's new investigation, university spokesman Christopher Davey emphasized that decisions on research misconduct were based solely on "the facts and the merits of each individual case," not on grant money.

Any other suggestion would be "false and offensive," he said. He pointed out that the institution has spent "significantly more to support his research program than he has brought in from outside sources."

Dr Croce, for his part, has denied any wrongdoing. He believes that he has been unfairly singled out because of his prominence.

"It is true that errors sometimes occur in the preparation of figures for publication," Dr Croce said in a statement to the Times, which was issued through the Columbus law firm Kegler Brown Hill & Ritter.

Any mistakes with figures were "honest errors," he said, and noted that he did not condone plagiarism but that he has to rely on coauthors in order to provide proper attribution.

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