German fraud shock

June 6, 1997

GERMANY'S scientific community fears that the international reputation of German science could suffer a serious blow following allegations of the country's biggest-ever scientific fraud.

Cancer researchers Friedhelm Herrmann, Marion Brach and Michael Kiehntopf are accused of having falsified results of research carried out at the Max Delbruck Centre for Molecular Medicine (MDC) in Berlin.

The allegedly fraudulent results were published in articles in four English-language scientific journals - one in the prestigious Journal of Experimental Medicine, two in Blood, and one in EMBO-Journal.

The allegations were made by a former colleague of the scientists, according to a report in the news weekly Focus which broke the story.

Professor Brach, director of the Institute of Molecular Biology at Lubeck University, is reported to have admitted the allegations. But she claims she was urged to manipulate the data by her boss, Professor Herrmann, who headed the research team. Kiehntopf has also admitted that he falsified data.

Professor Herrmann, the research leader and co-author of the papers, who is now at the University of Ulm in southwestern Germany, denies all knowledge of the fraud. He admits that data in the article in the Journal of Experimental Medicine was fabribrated, but claims this happened without his knowledge.

Professor Herrmann is considered a shooting star in gene therapy research. He is a member of a senate sub-committee of the German research fund DFG, the country's main promotor of pure research.

The German Cancer Research Fund donated DM515,000 (Pounds 206,000) and the DFG at least DM300,000 to research work being carried out by Herrmann and his team. Both organisations have now frozen funding while investigations are carried out.

A joint commission has been set up by the Max Delbruck Centre and the universities of Ulm and Lubeck to investigate the extent of the alleged fraud and whether funds should be repaid. It is due to hear evidence from the three accused scientists in Bonn on June 10.

The DFG has also set up a preliminary investigation. The organisation's spokesman, Eva-Maria Streier, said: "It will be a blow to the reputation of science and to the acceptance of funding for science if the allegations prove to be true.

"This is the first really serious case of an allegation of scientific fraud in Germany and we can only handle it openly and accurately. We still think our control systems of peer review and grants committee review are effective."

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