Ex-ERC head loses paper over image duplication

Science Advances article on diabetes drug co-authored by Mauro Ferrari retracted after readers spot irregularities

June 27, 2020
Mauro Ferrari
Source: European Commission

A scientific paper co-authored by the former president of the European Research Council has been retracted after duplicated images were detected in the research.

In an announcement on 26 June, the journal Science Advances said that it had retracted a paper published in April on what appeared to be a potentially game-changing method of delivering diabetes drugs orally, rather than through injections.

The paper, titled “Molecular targeting of FATP4 transporter for oral delivery of therapeutic peptide”, seemed to offer hope that drugs for other diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases, could eventually be given as a pill.

The results, which showed how mice were able to absorb the drug effectively in their stomachs, appeared to clear the way for clinical trials on humans, the study’s corresponding author Haifa Shen, professor of nanomedicine at the Houston Methodist Research Institute, told the Medical Xpress website in April.

Among the paper’s authors – all of whom were associated with the Houston institute at the time of publication – was Mauro Ferrari, who was head of the European Research Council for three months earlier this year before quitting in April over what he saw as the European Union’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Science Advances, the only open-access journal in the Science family of journals, says that it retracted the paper after “readers identified duplicated image regions in multiple figure panels”.

“Alerted to these concerns, the corresponding author’s institution performed a review of the supporting data and research records and determined that the research was not performed according to expected standards and was not reliable,” it says.

“Therefore, we wish to retract this research article promptly,” it continues, adding that it “apologise[s] that these errors were not discovered before the manuscript was published.”

The journal said that all the authors had agreed that the paper should be retracted, except one – its lead author Zhenhua Hu, who did not respond to his co-authors’ communications.

Times Higher Education contacted Professor Shen, who conducted the review of readers’ concerns, for comment.

Following Professor Ferrari’s resignation from the ERC, senior officials said that they had asked him to resign over a litany of failings that predated the pandemic, including spending too much time in the US and a “complete lack of appreciation for the raison d’être” of the ERC, namely “bottom-up” research suggested by academics, rather than “top-down” efforts dictated from above.


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