Author of Two Retracted COVID-19 Studies Once Bemoaned Misconduct

Marcus A. Banks

June 04, 2020

The Lancet today retracted a high-profile observational study about the use of hydroxychloroquine in COVID-19 treatment after scientists raised questions and the paper's authors were not able to access and vouch for its underlying data, which came from the company Surgisphere. The New England Journal of Medicine today also retracted a similar paper that drew on Surgisphere's proprietary database of global hospital medical records, after it had asked the authors to provide evidence that the data are reliable. 

Surgisphere's CEO, Sapan S. Desai, MD, PhD, coauthored both papers. A look at his previous publications turns up warnings against research misconduct and multiple specialty-focused registry studies. 

Desai's oldest article indexed in PubMed is from 2011, and the research repository includes 66 total papers he authored or coauthored since then. That first paper, coauthored with Cynthia K. Shortell, MD, in the Journal of Vascular Surgery, is a call to arms for medical publishers and editors to resolve any potential conflicts of interest in order to protect the integrity of scholarship. Desai and Shortell write, "Without aggressive intervention by editors and publishers, the public's confidence in scientific publishing will falter."

Two years later, writing in Publications , Desai and colleagues took a close look at how the Journal of Surgical Radiology prevents publication fraud. They write, "The most serious cause of fraud in medical publishing is manufactured data that authors use to support high impact conclusions. The Journal of Surgical Radiology requests primary, de-identified data from authors and completes its own statistical analysis on the information. Co-authors are asked to review this data and sign off on its authenticity, with the belief that fraud is less likely to be perpetuated among multiple stakeholders than from a single author." 

Desai did not respond to a request for comment.

As early as 2012, Desai published research drawing on large registries of patient data, much of it dependent on the National Inpatient Sample, a US government database. Desai's most-cited paper, with 274 citations according to Google Scholar, is a 2014 registry study that examined 11 years of data about aortic aneurysm repair in the United States, and concluded that endovascular aneurysm repair is safer than open aneurysm repair. 

Other registry-based studies he coauthored provide management guidance in traumatic blunt carotid and blunt thoracic injury and show that African Americans develop more advanced venous disease at younger ages than Caucasians. In 2017 he coauthored a set of best practices for registry research about abdominal aneurysms using publicly available data sets. These other papers have fewer than a dozen citations each. 

Desai also coauthored many case reports and treatment recommendations aimed at vascular surgeons. In March of this year he wrote a letter to the Annals of Vascular Surgery, calling for revisions to the ICD-10 codes related to aortic aneurysms. He listed his affiliation as the Vascular and Vein Institute of America in Chicago, but this institution does not appear in a Google search, a Chicago business directory, or nonprofit registries.

Anahita Dua, MBChB, now director of the Vascular Lab at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, is a coauthor on 46 of Desai's 66 papers in PubMed, which are principally case reports or analyses of government registry data. They began working together at the University of Texas Houston from 2012–2014, when Desai was a vascular surgery fellow and Dua was a research fellow. They have not collaborated during her time at Mass General. She declined to discuss her experience with Desai.

In 2013, Dua, Desai, and colleagues wrote a case report about a ruptured aneurysm in a carotid artery, in 2015 they described diagnosis and management of a ruptured popliteal mycotic pseudoaneurysm, and in 2018 they discussed management of groin complications after arterial bypass with a prosthetic graft. These papers have about a dozen citations, combined. 

SreyRam Kuy, MD, now a surgeon for the Baylor College of Medicine and Department of Veterans Affairs in Houston, Texas, has collaborated on a dozen papers with Desai, including the NEJM paper published last month. She did not respond to a request for comment. 

Gilbert R. Upchurch Jr, MD, who currently chairs the surgery department at the University of Florida in Gainesville, is a coauthor on seven of Desai's papers. Upchurch did not respond to a request for comment.

Marcus Banks is a health journalist whose work has appeared in Spectrum, TCTMD, and Nature Medicine.

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