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This spring, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology finally announced it had exonerated Ram Sasisekharan, a biological engineering professor, after a three-and-a-half-year research misconduct investigation.

Sasisekharan has been an MIT professor for nearly 30 years. He claims over 50 patents and says he’s founded six companies.

But he says the allegations and long investigation severely damaged his lab’s work.

“I feel that we have always been open,” he said. “Our science, everything that we have done has been in the public domain, and for it to be misrepresented was unfortunate in that it had negative impact on researchers from my group over many years. And the fact that we could not publicly defend ourselves when we were publicly attacked was the hardest part of this.”

A photograph of Ram Sasisekharan, a South Asian man with brown skin, dark hair, and some white at his temples. He is wearing a green striped button-down shirt.
Ram Sasisekharan


He said MIT explicitly told him not to talk during the investigation to his lab members who authored the challenged papers. He couldn’t apply for government grants during it, and his lab of 18, including research scientists, grad students and others, shrank to three, he said.

Maria T. Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, wrote this to faculty members in March:

Such allegations are reviewed through a well-established confidential process, and the results typically are not publicly disclosed. However, given the very public discourse about these allegations, I believe, and Professor Sasisekharan concurs, that it is necessary to share this information with you to bring closure to this matter, quell any remaining rumors or speculation, and assist in fully restoring the reputations of Professor Sasisekharan and the members of his lab.

Zuber’s letter has been publicly posted on MIT’s website. STAT reported last week on MIT finding him innocent.

The letter explains that, in the spring of 2019, MIT received “an internal complaint” alleging Sasisekharan committed research misconduct.

Around the same time, the journal mAbs had published an article criticizing Sasisekharan lab’s work. K. Dane Wittrup—an mAbs editorial board member and one of Sasisekharan’s MIT colleagues—was among the co-authors.

In her letter to the MIT faculty, Zuber wrote that “allegations of possible research misconduct in Professor Sasisekharan’s lab appeared in the media due to a perspective that was accepted two days after submission to the journal mAbs.”

The mAbs article, “Connecting the sequence dots: shedding light on the genesis of antibodies reported to be designed in silico,” does say it was received April 16, 2019, and accepted two days later. In tiny, light-gray font above the large online headline, it’s labeled “Perspective.”

This article says that, while Sasisekharan’s lab claimed the creation of two successful disease-fighting antibodies, “we present evidence that in both cases, previously published antibody sequences and structures are the basis.”

“The lack of sequence disclosure exposes a serious weakness in the peer review process in the emerging field of computational antibody design,” the article says. “Such obfuscation prevents independent confirmation, and is contrary to basic scientific norms. We find it difficult to view these authors’ approach in any light other than an intent to mislead as to the level of originality and significance of the published work.”

But, Zuber wrote to MIT faculty years later, MIT found no research misconduct.

“With the full cooperation of Professor Sasisekharan and others in his lab over three-and-a-half years, pursuant to MIT Policies and Procedures 10.1, MIT undertook its standard three-part review process to determine, using a preponderance of evidence standard, if there was sufficient evidence to find research misconduct,” Zuber wrote. “MIT has completed its investigation with no finding of research misconduct for any of the submitted allegations. MIT’s determination has been provided to the Office of Research Integrity (ORI), the federal office with oversight of research supported by federal funding. MIT has yet to receive the official closure of the matter by ORI.”

ORI didn’t respond to Inside Higher Ed’s requests for comment Friday, and Sasisekharan said he also hasn’t heard from that agency.

Zuber concluded her letter by saying,

As is typical, the institute will reflect on lessons learned from this process, including ways to strengthen our processes and provide additional support for our faculty as they navigate these challenging, taxing and complex reviews. We will also continue to monitor closely the proposed changes to the federal regulations governing these types of reviews to see how MIT might influence any changes to those regulations. Again, I am grateful to Professor Sasisekharan for his cooperation throughout the process, including the difficult commitment to maintain the confidentiality of the review.

MIT and Zuber didn’t provide interviews Friday or answer why the investigation took years.

The Sasisekharan lab website now criticizes Wittrup—who, like Sasisekharan, works at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. The lab website says neither Wittrup “nor any other faculty within MIT reached out to Ram Sasisekharan with questions or issues regarding the science that was attacked in the [mAbs] article.”

A Wall Street Journal reporter sharing a preprint of that mAbs article with Sasisekharan is how he “first learned of the ‘scientific’ questions his ‘colleagues’ had,” the website says.

“Therefore, there were factors beyond healthy discussion and debate of science at play,” the website says. “The very public attack Sasisekharan lab that [sic] endured, together with Sasisekharan lab’s inability to defend these allegations publicly because of MIT Policy 10.1.5 governing research misconduct, was a most egregious abuse of the research misconduct process. Simultaneous publication of the mAbs perspective together with the submission of research misconduct charges was likely intended to maximize reputational damage to the Sasisekharan lab.”

Wittrup, a chemical and biological engineering professor, didn’t respond to requests for comment Friday. Nor did Tillman Gerngross, another author of the mAbs article and a Dartmouth College engineering professor.

They co-founded Adimab, an antibody discovery lab that the other three authors of the mAbs paper are or were involved in, according to the article’s conflicts of interest disclosure. The lab didn’t respond to a request for comment Friday.

There’s now a petition, with only nine names on it so far, asking Janice M. Reichert, mAbs’s editor in chief, to retract the article. She said she hadn’t seen the petition before Inside Higher Ed asked her to comment on it Friday, so she had no comment on it or its allegations.

“I’m looking ahead,” Sasisekharan said, “in terms of rebuilding the lab and helping the careers of the scientists that I’ve mentored and trained over the years.”

He also wants to make sure that “the lessons learned from this are something that are taken seriously” to help others not go through similar ordeals.

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