Cancer Researcher Faked Data for 24 Images in Work Funded by Nine NIH Grants: Federal Watchdog

Retraction Watch Staff


April 06, 2022

A cancer researcher faked data in a grant application, her PhD thesis, and seven published papers, according to the U.S. Office of Research Integrity.

Toni Brand, who earned her PhD from the University of Wisconsin and served as a postdoc at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), "engaged in research misconduct by knowingly or recklessly falsifying or fabricating western blot data, by reusing and relabeling data to represent expression of proteins in control experiments measuring the purity of cytoplasmic and nuclear cell fractionation, measurements of proteins of interest, and measurements of the same protein under different experimental conditions or loading controls," the ORI said in a report published today.

One of Brand's papers, published in Science Signaling, was retracted in November 2021. The notice said that the Wisconsin committee found that 11 images in the paper were "duplicated, mislabeled, or had other anomalies" but "found that these issues were due to carelessness and lack of attention to detail rather than through any intent to deceive, and thus concluded that no research misconduct was committed."

The ORI, however, included that paper among those in which Brand "engaged in research misconduct."

It is unclear when UCSF's investigation wrapped up. [See update at the end of this post.] We know following a public records request that the University of Wisconsin notified Science Signaling of its findings of misconduct in August 2018 but that the journal – in what the editor called his "egregious delay" – took more than three years to retract the paper.

Brand, who "neither admits nor denies ORI's findings of research misconduct," agreed to have any research of hers funded by the Public Health Service – the parent agency of the NIH – supervised for four years. She also agreed to retract three additional papers:

The three papers have been cited more than 150 times in total.

Brand, now a science teacher at the Mount Tamalpais School in Mill Valley, California, did not respond to a request for comment. Paul Thaler, her attorney, declined to comment.

The finding of misconduct is the sixth of 2022 for the ORI, twice as many findings as it made all of last year.

Update, 4/5/22, 2200 UTC: ORI tells us that UCSF did not submit its investigation report until last year:

This case was atypical in that it involved two investigations of allegations that were conducted independently at two separate institutions – UWM (where the respondent completed her Ph.D.) and UCSF (where the respondent completed her post-doc). ORI's oversight review initiates at the conclusion of an institution's research misconduct proceedings – which in this case started when ORI received the second investigation report in 2021. ORI's oversight review included the reports, research records, evidence, and the institutional findings from both institutions, as well as ORI's additional analysis which required the examination of records from two separate institutional investigations. ORI recognizes that institutional proceedings take time, and ORI's oversight review also take time, to ensure that the respective processes are thorough.