Cancer Researcher, Under 'Review' in Ohio, Wins AACR Award

Nick Mulcahy and Roxanne Nelson

March 29, 2017

The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) will honor Carlo M. Croce, MD with its annual award for "leadership and extraordinary achievements in cancer research" during its meeting next week in Washington, DC.

Dr Croce will be handed the research award while his home institution, the Ohio State University in Columbus, has said it is "instituting an independent external review" of him. The review was initiated after an investigative report  published March 8 in the New York Times raised questions about the integrity of some of his research.

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 Ohio State. 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.

Allegations of misconduct have surrounded Dr Croce for decades.

However, in comments to the New York Times, a spokesperson for Ohio State framed the new investigation in neutral language, saying it is not "an indication that we have discovered any evidence of scientific misconduct or other issues raised in your inquiry."

Nonetheless, according to the news report, 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 Ohio State 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 Ohio State never penalized Dr Croce for misconduct. In fact, the university cleared him in at least five cases that involved his research or grant money.

History of Being Investigated

The Retraction Watch website has been monitoring Dr Croce and some of his colleagues. There are at least 20 corrections, retractions, and editors' notices regarding articles involving Dr Croce, with 3 or more forthcoming.

The site reports that Dr Croce has logged five retractions. In addition, several of his articles 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 Fusco, MD, an Italian cancer researcher who is under investigation for scientific misconduct. Nine articles of Dr Fusco's have been retracted.

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, Pennsylvania, 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 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.

At the AACR meeting, Dr Croce will receive the 11th Margaret Foti Award for Leadership and Extraordinary Achievements in Cancer Research. The award is named after the organization's chief executive officer.

Follow Medscape senior journalist Nick Mulcahy on Twitter: @MulcahyNick

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