The University of Southern California has opened an internal investigation of a leading neuroscientist, Berislav Zlokovic, over concerns from within his laboratory about allegedly fraudulent data being used to promote a major new drug for stroke treatment.
The complaints from four members of Professor Zlokovic’s lab included evidence of suspicious manipulations of images in journal articles, and unusual controls over entries in individual lab notebooks, as part of a purported culture of professional intimidation, Science magazine reported, citing a dossier compiled by outside scientists.
Professor Zlokovic, a professor of physiology and neuroscience at USC, is a well-recognized leader in work involving the blood-brain barrier—the ability of the body to let some compounds into the brain and block others, a topic with importance to multiple neurological conditions including Alzheimer’s and strokes. He has headed the Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute at USC for the past decade, leading its funding to grow more than 10 times, to nearly $40 million.
The work raising concern involves an enzyme, known as activated protein C, or APC, that helps prevent blood clots. Professor Zlokovic created a company, ZZ Biotech, that has been developing a form of APC known as 3K3A-APC that was created by a colleague, John Griffin, a professor of molecular medicine at the Scripps Research Institute.
The US National Institutes of Health funded the start last year of a $30 million study to test the 3K3A-APC compound on 1,400 people shortly after they experience a stroke. The whistleblowing lab members and the dossier authors argued that the trial should be suspended given early signs that 3K3A-APC is not beneficial and possibly even harmful, and that the study’s approval was based on manipulated data.
The team of authors who produced the 113-page dossier was led by Matthew Schrag, an assistant professor of neurology at Vanderbilt University, who began the investigation after detecting signs of possible image manipulation in Professor Zlokovic’s work.
USC issued a brief statement in which it said it “forwards any such allegations to its own Office of Research Integrity for careful review.” The university said it cannot comment beyond that because such reviews are confidential.
Professor Zlokovic did not respond directly to questions, though he agreed to Professor Griffin sending a written rebuttal that provided scientific explanations for their confidence in 3K3A-APC.
“The scientific knowledge of the authors of that dossier gave no credence to the huge body of knowledge about APC and 3K3A-APC,” Professor Griffin wrote.
Professor Griffin said he could not address the dossier’s photographic evidence of what the authors and other experts described as strong indicators of image manipulation, or the allegation by the dossier authors of Professor Zlokovic sometimes ordering changes in lab notebooks to reflect desired test results. But he said he “never perceived any professional intimidations in Zlokovic’s lab”.
The dossier authors said they had concerns about images from 35 studies published by Professor Zlokovic and his team, which have accumulated more than 8,400 citations, far above the levels of similar work in the field, and which have gained citations by 49 patents held by 30 companies, universities and foundations, Science said. The magazine also said it heard from multiple experts who raised alarm about the seriousness of the case.
The case follows a series of similar instances of alleged research fraud by star academics, including Marc Tessier-Lavigne, who agreed earlier this year to resign as president of Stanford University after internal investigations found the neuroscientist did not correct known errors in his published research.